The need to meet the challenge

An email circulating these days is that of a speech made by former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar at a dinner in London for the Sri Lankan cricket team years ago when he was en-route to the UN in New York. An interesting aside he made was about the manner in which skipper Arjuna Ranatunga walked to the boundary line (but did not cross it) and the resultant consequences after spin wiz Muttiah Muralitharan was 'no balled' by an Australian umpire for allegedly 'throwing' the ball illegally rather than bowling it properly.

Recalling the incident, Kadirgamar said the President of the Cricket Board had called him immediately after and asked for help. Kadirgamar had felt that the captain did the right thing by his men to protect them, and added, "but the consequences must not be allowed to go too far".

This week, the United States called for a review of Sri Lanka's labour laws before it okays its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) worth US$ 116 million a year (Rs. 12 billion) adding its muscle to a concerted strangulation of the Sri Lankan economy by Western nations. An official statement by the US attempts to convey the message that this is an ongoing review. But coming in the wake of its support for the UN Secretary General's appointment of a panel of experts to study the circumstances in which the Sri Lankan Security Forces defeated the LTTE a year ago - and its tacit support for the EU's withdrawal of its duty concessions for Sri Lankan exports, the US move smacks of a clear 'ganging up' to 'punish' Sri Lanka for not adhering to good governance practices. This is but a euphemism for 'teaching the Sri Lankan Government a jolly good lesson for being too damn smart with them'.

That the US does not use the same standards for all nations is an open secret. It has backed dictatorships, and still does so, provided those nations back Washington in return. Laws such as the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are used to detain 'terrorist suspects' indefinitely without trial at the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison and send 'terrorist suspects' to be tortured in 'friendly countries' like the current case of a Syrian engineer - a case which is making headlines even in America. The Washington Post in fact recently slammed the Obama Administration in an editorial for having "embraced the Bush Administration policies towards these detainees".

The Sri Lanka Government seems to recognize this 'ganging up' but those in the corridors of power firmly believe that with IMF tranches, foreign commercial bank borrowings and soft loans from India and China, the country's economic woes will be overcome. While this may be partly true insofar as immediate imports and infrastructure development projects are concerned, markets abroad are still firmly entrenched in the West. We certainly cannot think of exporting our tea, garments or machine tools to India or China which are manufacturers and exporters of the same items competing in the same markets that we do. When the President was quoted in an Indian newspaper as saying that he did not care what the world thought of him as long as he had India on his side, it might go down well there, but such comments get reported elsewhere as well and one might well question their wisdom.

The public remarks and actions of Government officials must not turn into jokes. At the beginning of this Government's term they referred to the 'Imperialist' IMF and closed down its Colombo office but are now happy to accept its tranches by providing report cards on fiscal discipline. Outrageous comments are made 'playing to the gallery' attacking the West on the one hand, and then Cabinet Ministers, the Treasury Secretary, the Attorney General and the like are sent on the quiet to obtain withheld favours.

These days, there is a howl against the UN merely because the UN Secretary General has named an experts panel to advise him on the tail end of the war in Sri Lanka. Without recognizing the immense amount of work done in the country in various fields through UN agencies like the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation and the United Nations Children's Fund, to name a few, there are hysterics and what has now been called 'megaphone diplomacy'.

Minister Kadirgamar may be a forgotten man now in the citadels of power, but his advice that the consequences of even a biased decision must not be allowed to go too far bears repeating. He had recommended that "good lawyers must be engaged and a reasonable compromise must be reached". This happened in the Ranatunga-Murali incident on the cricket field that in its own way had international ramifications. The matter was resolved with a minor reprimand for the Sri Lankan skipper; the ditching of the Australian umpire for many years from umpiring, and Sri Lanka went on to become World Cup winners the following year. This Kadirgamar principle remains today. “The consequences must not be allowed to go too far”.
President Rajapaksa was a practising lawyer and would know that if there is a case against you, you build your team of defence lawyers, prepare your defence, raise preliminary objections on issues of 'jurisdiction'; 'locus standi'; in the context of International Law and then make your case.

The Government has eminent persons acquainted with the nitty-gritty of International Law to deal with these issues which must go hand-in-glove with the political efforts to overcome these sinister moves on the world stage. But the manner in which it is handling this affair makes one want to ask what it has to hide.

The UN SG has said that he wishes to establish a panel to advise him and to provide for "the modalities applicable, international standards and comparative experience with regard to accountability processes taking into account the nature and scope of any illegal violations in Sri Lanka". Why the UN never had such a 'special investigating committee' during the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, or more recently the dropping of 'smart bombs' on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade or the drone attacks taking place this very moment in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan begs an answer. It is shocking that the UN SG didn't have any such advice or mechanism before with all the precedents of recent history. Has the UN, post WW II woken up to military excesses only after the Sri Lankan insurgency? Well and good if it extends to what's happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Government will need to come to terms with the reality that the kudos it won from the people for fending off Western pressures to stop the 'war' against the LTTE (despite hollow congratulatory messages from these same nations thereafter for defeating terrorism) will soon evaporate unless it changes course in dealing with the West.

Most of the issues raised by the EU - and now the US, deal with internal conditions in Sri Lanka -- the relaxing of emergency regulations, media freedom, labour conditions, some of which have been raised by stakeholders themselves in this country.
The need of the hour is for cool heads and quiet and skilled diplomacy. The Government must also not necessarily see this as demands by the West, but look at pursuing the best practices of good governance for its own people.

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