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Rajpal's Column

3rd October 1999

New sovereignty debate

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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Who said it is advisable to be soft with your words in the eventuality that you have to eat them? Lakshman Kadirgamar, the Minster of Foreign Affairs, has regurgitated what he calls the "human rights and sovereignty debate'' as if it is some brand new issue taken out of the tin can.

But, even the refined Mr. Kadirgamar who is almost like Miss Manners in the company of his more garrulous cabinet companions, cannot successfully argue on both sides of the issue. It is true that Mr. Kadirgamar joined the PA bandwagon, when it was gathering momentum close to the 1994 election. This is not an attack on Mr. Kadirgamar, besides. ( He is a holy cow, for some reason even among his ideological opposites. And, taking on a holy cow is not kosher, even though we are getting all types of religious metaphors mixed here.)

Anyway, the fact is that, when Mr. Kadirgamar jumped the People's Alliance political bandwagon, the PA was in a condition of frenzy. It was a time when the People's Alliance was attacking the UNP for its horrendous human rights record and getting oodles of international support for it into the bargain.

The PA did not talk of human rights and sovereignty then and if the UNP attempted to rationally present the debate the PA dooshanaya and beeshanaya machine saw to it that the UNP was painted as the monster gone mad.

When the UNP publicity machine made use of examples such as Mahatir Mohammed for instance, it was Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar's People's Alliance for example, that dismissed the idea.

But, now when Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar reopens the sovereignty and human rights debate, as if it was all fresh wool, he seems to be at least prevaricating, to be suitably genteel. ( Surely, a holy cow is allowed at least to prevaricate?) Sooner or later, the People's Alliance government was bound to grapple with the issues of power and was going to come face to face with the realities of governance.

But, now that the PA has got a taste of governance, what does it do? One thing is that it mouths the same rhetoric that the UNP in power articulated, which makes it look like the Australian second innings in rain. But, how much can a tired old argument be made to look like a brand new one?

And, it is funny that the "human rights and sovereignty '' debate is being re - packaged by Lakshman Kadirgamar when Sri Lanka is hitting the millennium and all kinds of global influences are necessarily shrinking the concept of "sovereignty'' as we knew it.

This is not a signal for the ''mavubima surekeeme'' or other maudlin motherland movements to pick up their axes. Sovereignty as a concept of geographical sovereignty for instance is not passe. But, new technology and its attendant benefit of information and connectability being just a mouse-click away, makes the people more "sovereign'' in the bargain. It's easier for people to get international opinion focused on human rights violations, for instance.

And, again, though it may be news to Mr. Kadirgamar, in Sri Lanka for instance, it's the people who are sovereign constitutionally. A direct effect of the shrinking borders is that people's sovereignty is bolstered whether governments or Foreign Ministers like it or otherwise.

How so? For instance, chapters on fundamental rights that are written into constitutions spring from the principle that the people are sovereign. It's a sovereign right of the people to enjoy basic human rights, and fundamental rights, which international organisations want to ensure in this country. In a youthfully flippant kind of way, it prompts the question, " Mr. Kadirgamar, then what's the debate.?""

So perhaps, Mr. Kadirgamar and the government is slowly growing up, or winding down to the realisation that as much as it is difficult to argue on both sides of the issue, it is also difficult to lead a schizophrenic political existence. The PA government still thinks of itself as the champion of human rights, but, by tampering with the judiciary, and the press, it has done more damage to its record than what a few excavations of graves in Chemmani could repair. The PA seems to be piqued therefore that it is the international organisations that are spotlighting this bad record of the PA. But no holy cow can have the grass and eat it too.

Mr. Kadirgamar maybe justifiably piqued that some of the concerns about the war that have been voiced by international organisations smack of interference, but his party's core ideological line was to thrive on such "interference'' before it came to power. What's difficult is to ask international organizations to turn it on when you want it and turn it off when you don't like it. Though its indubitable that some foreign organisations have an agenda what's funny is to see those who had used these foreign organisations orgasmically throwing their hands up in despair now.

For the PA, the sovereignty vs. human rights debate was over long ago, when the PA bandwagon clearly mandated foreign organisations to expose the behavior of the Sri Lankan government, at least as far as human rights was concerned. Now, when the PA is getting a dose of its own medicine, who are we to say, you asked for it mate?

Hulftsdorp Hill

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