UN Panels, GSP+ and lessons to be learned

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The impositions sought in relation to Sri Lanka recently by the UN Secretary General (with his unsolicited “Advisory Panel”) and the EU (with its list of “conditions” for the extension of GSP+ benefits) are seen by the government of Sri Lanka as intrusive, and many support that view. But they should not come as a surprise to those who have noticed the Sri Lanka-bashing trajectory that the Eelam struggle overseas has taken in recent times.

Using leverage with western governments and the UN apparatus in attempts to “punish Sri Lanka” has always been part of the strategy adopted by the LTTE, via pro-Tiger sections of the diaspora and front organizations. With the Eelam struggle becoming a largely “offshore” operation after the LTTE’s military defeat, this weapon seems to have taken centre stage. The aggressive demonstrations staged by Tamils in western capitals around the world during the last stages of the war, besides calling for a ceasefire they hoped would save the embattled Tiger leadership, also sought to pressure the governments of their host countries into imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Sri Lanka. These demands were based on a misleading and deceitful portrayal of the military campaign against Prabhakaran and his terror outfit, as an act of “genocide” against the Tamil people.

Ban Ki Moon

It would appear that while the LTTE has lost the ground battle, its propaganda war shows no signs of abating. The campaign to undermine the Sri Lankan state continues to be pursued by Tiger remnants and their overseas supporters, fuelled by revenge. There are those among a second generation of diaspora Tamils who say they reject violence, and seek to achieve their separatist objectives by using pressure on western parliamentarians and diplomats. The outcomes we see today in measures such as the EU decision to suspend the GSP+ facility, are not unrelated to this overseas propaganda war. In October last year the Financial Times, profiling one such “new generation” activist named Bala Muhunthan, reported that:

Quote: “He says he has so far convinced more than 140 British MPs to support his campaign. In April, Simon Hughes, a London MP, took him to meet officials at the US State Department. Muhunthan hopes his parliamentary backers will persuade the British government to put economic pressure on Sri Lanka until it releases the estimated 280,000 Tamil civilians still held in displacement camps and, ultimately, allows them their own state. Such pressure would include cancelling Sri Lanka’s status as a “GSP+” state, a designation bestowed after the 2004 Asian tsunami and intended to assist recovery by waiving certain taxes on exports to the European Union.”

“…..Muhunthan may be on to something: the tax waiver was one issue he had raised when he met Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU foreign affairs commissioner, in Strasbourg this year.” Unquote.
The Tamil diaspora wield a certain bargaining power with their parliamentary representatives as a result of the vote bank they collectively represent. The so called “ethnic vote” is coveted by MPs in these countries because it bestows the moral high ground, whether or not the numbers are significant in deciding the election result in a constituency. So there is certain complicity between these parties that work against Sri Lanka.

Another factor that works in favour of those who would like to see the country crucified in the international arena is the bias of the western media in their portrayal of this conflict from its inception. This originated with the anti-Tamil riots of 1983 and the subsequent exodus to the west of Tamils whose genuine horror stories shocked the world. The propaganda blitz launched by the Tiger network at this time made it impossible for even the most dispassionate observer to distinguish the truth from the distortions, exaggerations and lies that formed a greater part of this campaign. Ever since, the LTTE has enjoyed an edge over the state in the propaganda war. And as a result, the real nature of its monstrous campaign, which oppressed the very people it claimed to liberate and killed thousands of innocents, was never fully understood by ordinary citizens of the west. Even after their governments designated the LTTE as a terrorist organization, the romanticized view of the Tigers as “freedom fighters” has prevailed in the popular perception. It suited the pro-Tiger Tamils in the diaspora to feed this perception, from the safety and comfort of western capitals.

The Sri Lankan state on the other hand was suspected of a propaganda capability it never possessed. As a matter of fact the diplomatic missions overseas, often headed by political appointees, have been most inept in countering the avalanche of disinformation. Against this background it is not surprising that even the positive efforts of successive governments seldom seem to make the international news, while negative stories are readily given credence.

In the aftermath of the war, numerous western diplomats, parliamentarians and UN envoys were dispatched to Sri Lanka to check on conditions and alleged abuses of IDPs in the supposed “concentration camps.” All of them when they departed acknowledged that the situation was not as bad as they had been led to believe. The visiting MPs from Tamil Nadu, from whom the strongest criticism might have been expected, went to the extent of saying the government had done an “admirable job.” There seemed to be a “perception gap” between the situation they had imagined, and the reality. The sudden exodus of nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians from the LTTE-held areas created an extraordinary situation that called for extraordinary measures. By all accounts there was a sincere effort by the government to improve the difficult conditions of the detained IDPs as fast as possible whilst being alert to the security risk posed by LTTE cadres who might possibly be among them. The focus has now shifted to their resettlement and rehabilitation. The persistent and shrill outcry from western governments on human rights and war crimes, all the while insisting that they are “only trying to help,” has not been at all helpful in this difficult exercise.

These western and UN diplomats if they really want to help might take a leaf out of Japan’s book. The Representative of the Government of Japan for Peace building, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi has been one of the few foreign emissaries to show some empathy with regard to Sri Lanka’s situation, and an understanding of the difficulties faced by the country in this transitional period. Assistance from Japan comes not as an imposition, but is carried out in consultation with the government.

But Akashi too is misrepresented in the international media, which tends to lump all the foreign emissaries in the same unsympathetic basket. After his recent five-day visit, a widely circulated agency report led with the statement that: “A visiting Japanese envoy said Sunday his country backed efforts by the UN to investigate alleged war crimes committed in Sri Lanka during the final months of the ethnic conflict.” The Japanese embassy has confirmed that Akashi did not make such a statement. What he said at the June 20 briefing was: “In this connection I believe that the establishment by the UN Secretary General of a UN Panel of three experts would be useful.”

According to the same report:

“Akashi said he had pressed Colombo to allow the UN to get involved in Sri Lanka's reconciliation process." The government listened to what I said. (But) I feel there is a lack of flexibility and openness," Akashi told reporters.” According to an embassy spokesman, what Akashi said was:

“The government leaders with whom I discussed this matter listened very attentively to what I said. So I think their basic attitude is that of openness and flexibility.”

This was not the first time Akashi has been misreported on Sri Lanka. In Feb. 2008 he vehemently denied news reports from Tokyo that quoted him as saying aid to Sri Lanka would be cut if violence continued to escalate.

The writer is a senior freelance journalist.

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UN Panels, GSP+ and lessons to be learned


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