Amidst the lack of clarity on the policy options on local issues facing the electorate before the forthcoming general election, at least the foreign policy options are now becoming visible. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in a major policy speech to Parliament this week made clear that within the mandate given to President Maithripala Sirisena to [...]


Foreign Policy: Engage with caution


Amidst the lack of clarity on the policy options on local issues facing the electorate before the forthcoming general election, at least the foreign policy options are now becoming visible.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in a major policy speech to Parliament this week made clear that within the mandate given to President Maithripala Sirisena to “build a new, united , peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka, in which ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity is respected..”, foreign policy would give priority to “engagement and dialogue and to renew partnerships”. These broad objectives were linked to the recommendations of the LLRC report for reconciliation and development and particular reference made to the mandate given by the previous government to the Foreign Ministry relating to the engagement of the diaspora which had upto now remained unfulfilled.

The new policy is firmly grounded in the findings of the post-conflict national process which was the country’s pledge in Geneva to the international community. If there is any quarrel, it is that Foreign Minister Samaraweera chose to meet Tamil diaspora leaders in London in the company of some of the earlier country players who had seemed biased towards one community, at least in the eyes of the general public in Sri Lanka. This has given an opening to the pro-Mahinda Opposition to point a finger at the “Eelamized foreign policy” and to raise security concerns, which will work on the minds of those already convinced by the previous government’s reiteration of a “foreign conspiracy” affecting our national interests.

It goes without saying that foreign policy is based on the national interest, and it works best when it has bipartisan support including broad public support. Unfortunately, in an election year, it may not be possible to reach this ambitious goal, but some small steps may help. First, both due to its historical origins associated with the scattering of the people of Israel and their search for a homeland and also since the notion of “diaspora” has achieved some kind of infamy in the Sri Lankan context, it may be wise to revert to the term “Non-Resident” as India has done. Secondly, a full fledged programme to engage the non-resident population should go concurrently with public assurance that there will be no let up on maintaining intelligence operations not only abroad but also around the island given the constant detections of smuggling of narcotics and gold which could be connected to financing of terrorist or criminal activities.

The secret of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgarmar’s credibility with the international community as well as with domestic publics was his understanding of the nexus between the promotion and protection of human rights and the combating of terrorism. This connection, on which there is considerable debate in human rights circles in Geneva and elsewhere, is now becoming apparent even to countries like Canada, Norway and Australia, which previously had championed open door welcome for refugees and are now imposing controls and strengthening internal security to meet what is perceived as a rise in threat levels and internal violence. A cautious policy would recognise that the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) has not let up on its political objectives while prioritising the return of the displaced to their lands, release of political prisoners and review of those proscribed. It is disappointing to see that the British authorities appear to be encouraging the GTF for reasons connected with their own domestic politics. So we should not expect from the British any support to what would most people here believe would be in Sri Lanka’s interest, i.e. a clear statement from the GTF of the abandonment of the separatist struggle.

For those who still support the “international conspiracy” theory, it should be remembered that Sri Lanka has since the early days enjoyed a reputation as “an engaged and committed” member of the international community, with a robust interest in human rights in the UN system. After being admitted to the UN in 1955, Sri Lanka, for many years, served as an active member of the UN Commission on Human Rights (which preceded the Human Rights Council) and took a leadership role in initiatives such as regional arrangements for promotion and protection of human rights. It was hailed for its socio- development success through the PQLI Index and considered a model along with countries like Costa Rica as functioning democracies with low military expenditure. That is, until the onset of the southern youth insurgency in the 1970s, followed by the northern ethnic conflict, necessitated the military build-up, the consequences of which have been studied and debated around the world.

Yet through most of the difficult years of conflict, faced with a barrage of charges from arbitrary executions and enforced disappearances to torture, Sri Lanka had engaged with the international community, investigated and responded to inquiries and allegations. It had received visits from mandate holders to advice on many areas from the rights of displaced persons to religious intolerance and tried to implement in good faith the international commitments entered into.

When the Commission was elevated to the Human Rights Council in 2006, Sri Lanka was elected a member. However, when the policy of sensible cooperation led by Foreign Ministry professionals was changed to one of confrontation and denial post-2009 on the advice of untested political appointees in the former government, Sri Lanka found itself unable to get elected to the HRC and faced with prescriptive resolutions and investigations by the OHCHR.

Recent articles warning against extending an invitation to the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) stem from that vein of thinking. In fact the WGEID has had Sri Lanka on its scanner from the 1970s in the aftermath of the southern youth insurrection; long after the event, members had complimented Sri Lanka on the manner in which it had dealt with the outstanding cases which originally numbered over 12,000, among the highest in the world at the time. Through due process of issuing death certificates where consent was available and paying compensation, this number was reduced in time to over 5,000 while over the years, Sri Lankan authorities had explored without success many possible solutions to bring finality to this problem.

So extending an invitation to the WGEID and being prepared to listen to their advice is a brave step after years of stonewalling by the former government. However, it is presumed the Foreign Ministry has begun working on the preparations for the visit which needs careful management if it is not to be hijacked by political opportunists intent on creating negative public opinion ahead of the forthcoming election.

The point to be made here is that the policy of disengagement from international fora and confrontation with special human rights mechanisms as has been practised by the former government post-2009, may not be the answer, if one is to address the grievances of the concerned families. There is sufficient institutional knowledge and expertise on human rights law in this country to try to find a consensual way forward, to engage with caution, mindful of our international human rights obligations.
(The writer is a former Sri Lanka Foreign Service Ambassador)

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