My previous article had drawn a distinction between the foreign policy pursued by the President Rajapaksa government after 2009 as one of confrontation with the West and disengagement with the United Nations and the international system as against the rebalancing witnessed following the assumption of office of the new government after January 8 this year [...]

Sunday Times 2

Foreign policy and the election


My previous article had drawn a distinction between the foreign policy pursued by the President Rajapaksa government after 2009 as one of confrontation with the West and disengagement with the United Nations and the international system as against the rebalancing witnessed following the assumption of office of the new government after January 8 this year to restore Sri Lanka’s longstanding position of friendship with all (including the US and EU, being our main export markets) and close engagement with the international community including civil society.

The UN Human Rights Council: With the Human Rights High Commssioner’s report on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka being presented in September, there is an opportunity for adopting a bipartisan approach and preventing the issue from becoming divisive

That article had underlined the need, in the national interest, for a bipartisan approach to foreign policy which is now even more urgent given the impending report on Sri Lanka by the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in September. There is also the recent floating in the press of a suggestion for a pro-China tilt to Sri Lanka’s foreign policy which must be addressed. Foreign policy issues normally do not get much attention in Sri Lanka elections but this time around, it will be important to have the full picture on the strategic options available to the country in the conduct of its foreign relations.

A fundamental question which arises is whether there is common ground to build such a bipartisan approach. With regard to the OHCHR report on Sri Lanka which was originally to come out in March but had been put off to September at the request of the new government, there is indeed an opportunity for adopting a bipartisan approach and preventing the issue from becoming divisive — that is if electioneering does not get in the way. Reconciliation is something everyone advocates even if it is viewed in different perspectives. A certain degree of progress has been made under President Rajapaksa’s government in terms of reconstruction and devolution of power to the Northern Province as demanded by Tamil political parties.

President Sirisena’s assurances of equal treatment for all communities within a multicultural society and the opening to civil society, for example, had further inscribed a new spirit of reconciliation, which has been backed by action on other concessions demanded by the North such as the installation of a civilian governor and expediting the return of lands taken over for military purposes to the original owners. The constitutional assurances of good governance, viz reducing the powers of the President and restoring the independent commissions, have been passed in Parliament with overwhelming majority, in the form of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Certain recommendations of the LLRC like reaching out to the Tamil diaspora groups have been implemented by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

What is left to finalise pertains to the “measures for restorative justice and accountability” on which the Foreign Ministry has not said much recently except that they are in consultation with various experts and awaiting for example the Paranagama report on Disappearances. Both of these initiatives have roots in the period of the previous government. The question remains therefore whether politicians will put aside their personal differences and try to forge a common understanding on this last set of issues. No one in Sri Lanka, not even the main civil society leaders, is calling for punishment for “alleged war crimes”; such is the deep relief in this country that LTTE terrorism has been ended. Yet restorative justice can take many forms. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission became the appropriate vehicle, perhaps because it was in keeping with the Christian tradition of the confessional. In Thailand, senior officials or persons who have committed a grave crime even unwittingly, have been known to take robes and leave society for a period of personal atonement. Whatever shapes the domestic mechanism in this country take, it must, however, have bipartisan support in parliament if it is to have any hopes of continuity. This is why the rumour that some politicians are planning to make this an election campaign issue with a “fake” OHCHR report is so disappointing.

During my tenure of office in the Geneva mission, I remember the bewilderment of International Parliamentary Union (IPU) officials and delegates as time and time again, those members of parliament from Sri Lanka when out of office would call for IPU assistance to redress their grievances even though they had turned a blind eye to complaints of human rights violations when in power! Is human rights then just for purposes of baiting the opposition or can those parliamentarians who have witnessed the pangs of injustice come together to build a firm foundation on even a few major issues for example to condemn enforced or involuntary disappearances and deaths in custody? For example, statements in Parliament have been used by some countries to address long standing human rights issues. For example, Australia and Canada, which have had huge pressure brought upon them at the Human Rights Council and its predecessor the CHR, on the mistreatment of aborigines and native Indians, have had recourse to this mechanism. Yet, issuing a declaration of intent is only the first step, as seen in the difficulties that have hampered even President Obama in bringing finality to the issue of the detainees at Guantanamo.

There is another alarming development, the recent floating of the notion by an academic that Sri Lanka should depart from its traditional foreign policy of friendship with all and pursue a pro-China tilt based on its capacity to offer financial assistance. Such a suggestion may have arisen in the heat of the election campaign, but the rationale remains somewhat of a mystery given that in academic writings in this country there is a well-known view and implicit warning that a pro-West tilt by the J.R. Jayewardene government had created the situation in the 1980s for the entry of India into the island’s internal affairs!

Furthermore, it is an unfortunate fact that most Sri Lankans have become influenced over the last few years on the theory of an “international conspiracy” against the nation, as much as on the notion advanced by some academics and think tanks of an emerging competitive rivalry in Asia between the rising giants India and China. Observing a class of students in Indian Ocean strategic affairs recently, it was somewhat dismaying to note that student teams representing India and China had come to the conclusion that both countries would opt for military escalation.

Have we then learned nothing from history and the waste of resources on armaments during the Cold War era? Remember the Star Wars initiative which some argued had brought down the USSR social and economic system by instigating a strategic competition in an area in which one side had the technological superiority? Surely the world has moved forward from those earlier days when two security pacts confronted each other. Today there is a host of confidence-building measures in place in the Indian Ocean area, the diplomatic consultations on several tracks, the regular meetings involving the naval forces of many countries, including hotlines, joint military exercises and exchanges, joint efforts to combat piracy etc.

Whatever the criticism levelled at Francis Fukuyama for suggesting that the “end of history” had come, what he foresaw as the emergence of a similar world view on economics characterised by forces of integration and inter-dependence and global open markets, is indeed continuing to unfold. It is on this basis that even Cuba, one of the last bastions of communist economic theory, has now moved to normalise its relations with the United States.

History, too, reminds us that once India and China were the engines of world economic growth, pillars of a thriving Asia, in its golden era with high industrialisation, dealing with each other peacefully through the exchange of cultural ideals and free trade. That was before the western powers came into the Indian Ocean with their new military weapons seeking to exploit the riches of the Asian world. The United States as a new country is somewhat immune from our memories of the dreadful colonisation of the Portugese, Dutch and British periods. Hence the attraction of the viewpoint recently advanced in India by a leading BJP policy maker urging the building of synergies between India, China and the United States instead of the viewing these relations through a prism of unending competition. This is the pragmatic view which should influence our strategic thinking going forward after the election.

(The writer is a former Sri Lanka Foreign Service Ambassador)

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