It is the bi-annual season for the public condemnation of Sri Lanka by yesteryear’s colonial powers and wannabe powers with lessons on how best to administer a country along the straight and narrow path of good governance and human rights. Now it is the turn of an ex-Chilean President (who has never set foot in [...]


Paying a heavy price in Geneva


It is the bi-annual season for the public condemnation of Sri Lanka by yesteryear’s colonial powers and wannabe powers with lessons on how best to administer a country along the straight and narrow path of good governance and human rights.

Now it is the turn of an ex-Chilean President (who has never set foot in this country) leading the charge against Sri Lanka on behalf of the Western powers spearheaded by a fellow Commonwealth member-state.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is where this game is being played for some time. And the goal posts keep shifting. What began as a call for an International War Crimes Tribunal to investigate alleged violations of International Human Rights Law changed to the call for Universal Jurisdiction against the perpetrators of ‘war crimes’ during the 2009 final onslaught on an international terrorist group operating in Sri Lanka that ended a three decade-long insurgency.

On Tuesday, the UNHRC chief spoke little of this. Her previous statement that Sri Lanka was in a ‘state of denial’ was absent and instead, she turned her focus to more current issues, the purpose being to keep the pot on the boil though which country will not have internal issues, and why the cherry-picking she did not explain.

It is now clear that the sponsors of this Resolution against Sri Lanka cannot get an International War Crimes Tribunal because it will be vetoed in the UN Security Council. The UNHRC has no authority to establish one on its own and so it already got the next best option approved at the last UNHRC session in March — a mandate to apply Universal Jurisdiction by willing and able countries to detain and prosecute identified offenders from Sri Lanka, where possible. They also got approval at the UNHRC and the UNGA (UN General Assembly) to set up a ‘quasi prosecutor’s office’ at the UNHRC office in Geneva to provide legal and technical backstopping for such prosecutorial efforts in those countries. Basically, Sri Lanka has allowed our Attorney General’s work to be outsourced to a unit in Geneva exclusively dedicated to Sri Lanka’s caseload. This is unprecedented. What other ‘democratic’ country has suffered such ignominy at Geneva?

Successive Governments in Colombo failed abysmally in ‘preventive diplomacy’. There was a definitive need for an internal inquiry for the purpose of learning lessons for the country’s own good as well as meeting the concerns of a vocal Diaspora abroad and the Western powers that were snubbed at the tail-end of the insurgency. Domestic mechanisms for accountability were already in place even if a tad delayed to get domestic agreement within the country for a credible accountability and reconciliation process based on the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) and the (Justice) Paranagama reports. They could have strategised with like-minded member states of the UNHRC saying that a credible domestic process is underway. Outsourcing and remodelling the UN Charter rules for that purpose were not necessary.

Sri Lanka could then have negotiated from a position of relative strength with the ‘Core Group’ (the UK, the USA and the EU) which proposed this intrusive and offensive Resolution now hanging over it. Experience would point to having received even 14 to 18 votes and a larger number of abstentions – enough to deter a one-sided Core Group Resolution or to make them negotiate with Sri Lanka in good faith. Even if the Core Group (CG) had other agendas in the greater scheme of geo-politics, it would have been harder to justify its crusade against Sri Lanka.

The previous Yahapalana Government went to Geneva and tried to quieten the CG by an outward show of solidarity with the West but in the process it signed on to some undeliverable Western wish list without negotiating realistic ‘deliverables’, and were unable to convince the local electorate of its strategy, except to say that it prevented former leaders from the ‘electric chair’ treatment. They lost two elections in the process. The present Administration went to Geneva punch-drunk from a massive mandate from the masses to announce unilateral exits without negotiating a way out based on a credible domestic process. The loss calculation is still ‘work in progress’. Both Administrations failed to negotiate judiciously and thereby failed the ‘national interest’ test.

It is not too difficult for the Foreign Office to learn from a time when under a different watch, fighting terrorism and fighting for human rights remained mutually supportive and not competing public policy goals. The approach at the UNHRC and preventive diplomacy strategies were anchored in this diplomatic binary that succeeded in preventing such adverse Resolutions even during the height of war at forums ranging from the UNHRC to the UN Security Council.

It can still be attempted if the decision-makers drive consensual policy making — not drive into prisons bearing pistols. But time has nearly run out. If the Government does not extricate itself from the ostrich hole and do the right thing, or worse, continue to dig further without realising that it is in a hole, the Western powers behind the Resolution will have the Geneva prosecutors’ outfit up and running, by financing its budget and ensure a more offensive Resolution on Sri Lanka by next March. The UNHRC chief, seemingly very keen to be consultant to the Government on how it should run the country, has already told the Government that she “looks forward to concrete action”.

Successive Sri Lankan Governments were unable or unwilling to comprehend the value of the way out the LLRC report provided that would have satisfied the internationals and the minority moderates at home at that time. One is talking about a time frame of about a decade ago. The stakes are much higher now. Western powers are like a dog with a bone; they won’t let go easily. Instead of building a bipartisan political consensus on the citizens’ consensus contained in such recommendations as the LLRC report, the ruling class trivialised and mocked its recommendations, which eventually even received international acceptance.

Barring some ad hoc releases of acquired land to IDPs, and opening some offices, the core recommendations on accountability and reconciliation in the LLRC and Paranagama reports remained pulp products. The former dispensations were responsible for this blunder as a result of which, the issue migrated to Geneva where the country will have to pay a heavy price in the months ahead.


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