Thursday's vote at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva pitted Sri Lanka against the world's most formidable powerhouse, the United States. It stretched that super-power to the limit. The US sponsored resolution received the slimmest of majorities - just a solitary vote (24 out of 47), but it ended with Sri Lanka now in the dock of the world community. Could this have been averted?
It was the second attempt by the US, after the botched resolution soon after the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 to punish Sri Lanka. This time the US did not hide behind the Czech Republic as it had done last time; the US came forward itself, with all its muscle and just made it. One less vote and the US would have still had the resolution passed, but it would have been a pyrrhic victory. Even now, the final scorecard clearly indicated that the world community recognised a patent unfairness on the part of the US in singling out Sri Lanka. There were after all, eight abstentions while 15 voted against the anti-Sri Lanka resolution.
That said, how did the Government of Sri Lanka react? From the beginning it was uncertain at best on what stand to take, eventually adopting strategies ranging from an incoherent foreign policy to a cacophony of voices playing to the local gallery and alas, a string of missed opportunities.
For some time, especially after the 2010 elections, there have been a series of foreign policy blunders. There was the case of Nepal and the Maldives denying statements by Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister that they had asked Sri Lanka for help in settling their internal problems. There was a major flaw in Sri Lanka's foreign policy towards the European Union. It saw the withdrawal of the GSP + duty free concessions for Sri Lankan exports to Europe. This was followed by the US adopting a similar stance. Then came this resolution; a move to internationalise the Sri Lankan issue and bring it into the league of Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria and others.
That 'surgery' was inevitable to rid this country of the scourge of terrorism was a foregone conclusion. The West, for reasons best known to it, did not want the LTTE defeated. But it was. Unfortunately, the clinical surgery adopted to liquidate the LTTE militarily did not extend to the 'post-surgical' complications that arose in the diplomatic arena. Sri Lanka was at sixes and sevens on how to deal with this new phenomenon.
On page 18 this week, we have an article on Sri Lanka's first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake's foreign policy. In the immediate flush of Independence, without Defence Forces to call our own to safeguard our newly won sovereignty, he opted for a Defence Treaty with Britain believing as he did at the time, that it was in both countries' interests. The writer, who later became a President of Sri Lanka, says that the Treaty compromised Sri Lanka's neutrality.
Russia blocked Sri Lanka's entry into the UN partly due to this, but that allowed Sri Lanka to trade with China on whom there was an embargo. It showed that even the pro-British Prime Minister was pragmatic enough to do business with countries whose internal politics he did not favour, as long as it benefitted the Sri Lankan people.
The world has changed in the 60 years since his death. Today, the US is doing business with both Russia and China and the cold war is a thing of the past. Ironic as it is, the Communist Party of India backed the anti-Sri Lanka resolution in Geneva and the CP leader in Sri Lanka who happened to be the acting Foreign Minister this week was unable to persuade his anti-Imperialists comrades in India to oppose the US resolution.
During the week, an Indian television channel aired a programme on Sri Lanka. It showed how ill-informed Indian politicians were of events unfolding in this country. Sri Lanka's ineffective foreign policy must take some blame for this - for its inability to reach out and engage these influential quarters. It did not cultivate Indian political parties over the years. Knee-jerk reactions were the order of the day when the US resolution became a reality and delegations were sent to faraway Uruguay but not to Chennai or New Delhi.
Admittedly, the Geneva resolution was badly handled from the very beginning. US motives were misread. That it would want to avenge the 2009 UNHRC defeat was not flagged. When the UN Secretary General was arm-twisted by the US to arm-twist Sri Lanka, the legitimacy of the report submitted to him was questioned and then, a delegation was secretively sent to argue the country's case before it, thereby legitimising it.
There were no back channel negotiations to ward off a resolution in Geneva. Instead, the President was misled to believe that US noises were mere 'pressure tactics'. No interlocutors were used to bring about a settlement. Instead, it was a case of putting up a brave front with chest-thumping rhetoric at home. Now, Sri Lanka has a UNHRC resolution, however watered down it may have eventually been, dangling over its head like the proverbial sword of Damocles.
The resolution calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations. As we have stated before, had the Government shown some interest and speed in implementing at least some of the Commission's recommendations on which there is common ground among political parties and the vast majority of the people, then the US resolution would have looked foolish. The cry for an international war crimes tribunal has almost been snuffed out in the process.
One would imagine that the US realised that such a tribunal did not have currency with the international community outside Europe. It was after all, the very US State Department that spearheaded this anti-Sri Lanka campaign that once classified the LTTE as the 'most dangerous terrorist organisation' in the world.
One might venture to suggest that it was not the 'ground situation' in Sri Lanka that mattered so much as the 'ground situation' in the US, Europe and India in this case. The Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister made it a point to say after Thursday's vote that the UNHRC was no longer governed by the merits of a particular issue "but by strategic alliances and domestic political issues". While this is true to a large extent, Sri Lanka has failed to fulfil many of the commitments it has itself given before to the UNHRC - and to India. Often these commitments are made without much thought, or to get disentangled from knotty situations, and then they come to haunt the country thereafter. It is time the Government reflects and re-charters its foreign and domestic policy strategies and assesses where it went wrong on the road to Geneva.