Whether we like it or not, Sri Lanka’s economy and therefore the wellbeing of its citizens are inexorably intertwined with the outside world. We might want to be economically developed like Singapore, but fortunately we do not have to wholly depend on the outside world for our existence. And yet, there is no escape from the [...]


Diplomatic masochism for nationalistic support


Whether we like it or not, Sri Lanka’s economy and therefore the wellbeing of its citizens are inexorably intertwined with the outside world. We might want to be economically developed like Singapore, but fortunately we do not have to wholly depend on the outside world for our existence. And yet, there is no escape from the stark reality that much depends on external pulls and pushes for this country.

We have no oil for starters. Much of what we require in a modern world, from modes of transport to consumer items, including foodstuffs has to be imported. We need to pay for these and therefore we must rely on foreign trade, foreign investments, foreign tourists – and the foreign exchange from our much neglected workers abroad to earn this money. This is called the balance of payments which our regular economic columnist keeps reminding our readers of each passing week.

On the eve of Sri Lanka’s 65th anniversary of Independence, two delegations from the US and Britain were in Colombo giving the Government some gratuitous advice on good governance. The week after our Independence celebrations, a delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was in town turning down a request for yet another loan facility. The Commonwealth Secretary General was also here lecturing on ‘Commonwealth values’. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a report hectoring the Rajapaksa administration on human rights, and other good governance requirements and the latest resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva became available. This was happening while our Minister of External Affairs was running round the globe like a headless chicken fire-fighting on behalf of the Government trying to ward off the negative vibes reverberating from across the world.

How much attention, and importance, the Government has placed on these undercurrents is no longer a moot point. The fact remains that Sri Lanka continues to be with its back against the wall. The immediate priority is to face the forthcoming UNHRC sessions in Geneva where the country is confronted with this latest resolution against it, topping up on the first resolution passed last year.

The UNHC on Human Rights had fired the first salvo with her report on Sri Lanka’s performance since the last resolution against the country was passed saying that the Government has a “unique opportunity” to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations on reconciliation and strengthening the rule of law, and to address allegations of violations of international humanitarian law. The draft US-sponsored second resolution came on cue two days later.

The latest signals from Geneva refer to the recent impeachment of the Chief Justice and ask the Government to open proceedings of military courts to independent observers, etc. Interestingly, in the High Commissioner’s report there is also a reference to the need to ensure the resumption of livelihoods of those who were affected by the northern insurgency of yesteryear. This is a matter she ought to take up with the Indian Government, but will dare not, for India’s stance is to actively encouraging the illegal poaching in Sri Lankan territorial seas by its fishermen, thereby disrupting the livelihoods of thousands of Sri Lankans in the north.

Foreign policy analysts point out that the events unfolding in Geneva this week are both challenging as well as an opportunity for the Government. A challenge because both, the Human Rights High Commissioner and the new resolution seem to use the locally produced LLRC report as a benchmark, so that now the Government cannot blame “foreign imperialist designs” for its non-compliance with good governance measures. Should the Government continue to ignore the LLRC recommendations, it runs the risk of further intrusive and international measures by those countries hounding Sri Lanka on the world stage.

The opportunity is that Sri Lanka is not yet on the rack. Yes, the draft resolution criticises the LLRC for not adequately addressing “serious allegations of violations of international law” vis-a-vis the last stages of the fighting to liquidate the LTTE. Such is probably true because that was not exactly the mandate of the LLRC — but the Government has been given some little space, something it has been long asking for, to deliver, to put its house in order.

There is, however, India to contend with. An election is due next year in that country and contending parties will almost certainly make Sri Lanka an election issue to woo the Tamil Nadu political parties, which in turn woo their voters by whipping up the Sri Lanka bogey. That has been the political dynamics and electoral theatrics of Indian politics for some time now.

The Human Rights High Commissioner’s report and the draft US resolution go in tandem and make one thing clear. The High Commissioner, as the agent of the countries that control the world body (leaving aside her own personal prejudices), and the US intend keeping Sri Lanka ‘in the dock’ for some time to come. The ‘suspended sentence’ issued last year by way of the US-sponsored and India-backed resolution will remain in the boiling pot, simmering, so that the Rajapaksa Administration continues to feel the heat.
How the Government’s seven-page response to the Human Rights High Commissioner’s report and its Geneva diplomacy in the coming weeks will turn the tide is left to be seen. The absence of any categorical challenge to the report’s conclusions could almost leave one with the misconception that the Government concurs with those conclusions.

It could be said that the two-pronged missives — the UN High Commissioner’s report and the draft US resolution — are aimed at inflicting progressively higher degrees of diplomatic torture on the Government of Sri Lanka. The country will remain on the UNHRC agenda and the offer of ‘technical assistance’ by the UNHRC has been effectively rammed down the Rajapaksa Government’s throat.

But what the UNHRC, or the Western nations continue to misread is that the Rajapaksa Government enjoys a certain degree of diplomatic masochism because it can then whip up the omnipresent nationalist fervour in this country by using the Western enemy image to its advantage in the electorate, however malfunctioning, corrupt or law bashing a regime it may be.

Sadly, without a little bit of external stick, the Administration can run amok. While the two parties, the State of Sri Lanka and the Western powers at the UNHRC battle it out, it could well be the ordinary citizen here whose future is at stake. While the Government’s National Action Plan on the many recommendations of the LLRC falls way short of expectations of these western powers, it also falls short of expectations of the people of this country. Why so baffles the citizenry, one and all.

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