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Human rights, economic development and Sri Lanka’s foreign policy


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By Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka

An article in an English language daily this week stated that Sri Lanka is hoping to “project itself as a model of post-war reconciliation and reconstruction” in order to “obtain international support for its economic development plans”. 

It went on to indicate when and how Sri Lanka began to work towards this aspiration: “It was the new Government’s decision to agree to the 2015 resolution in Geneva that led to the turnaround in Sri Lanka’s relationship with the international community.” 

However, looking at some key economic figures since Resolution 30/1 was signed, it hasn’t necessarily resulted in the support that was expected.   

The three-year average Foreign Direct Investments as per the Central Bank’s figures seem to indicate that there was more Foreign Direct Investment before the Resolution was signed than after it. 

2012-2014 = $ 939.3 million

2015-2017= $ 763.4 million

The same seems to be true when one looks at the average GDP growth rates according to the World Bank database.

2012-2014 = 5.84% 

2015-2017 = 4.57%

The greatest support to strengthen the present Government’s economic performance has come from a country that never linked unproven human rights allegations to economic support. When the much-needed funds, large amounts that no other country was able to provide, was negotiated with China, it was sound economic prospects, the longer term objectives of the Belt and Road initiative (OBOR) and the good relations that had been maintained over decades if not centuries between the two countries, that resulted in the agreements. 

The point here is that a model of international relations that relies on the linkage of human rights and economic support has manifestly not been useful for Sri Lanka in a context where there are massively negative assumptions and allegations, which require submission to damaging processes, as part of that mix. 

It is inherently a good thing to improve the human rights of a country and has to be pursued for its own sake. It is also true that in most Western societies, public opinion can play a decisive role in their decisions to invest in a country, even if they were able to do so. Due to a successful propaganda campaign, Western public opinion was generally negative and remains sceptical with regard to human rights in Sri Lanka. 

Neither the previous administration nor the current one has been able to use the credible information that was available to challenge this perception, despite reports such as the LLRC and the Paranagama report compiled by internationally respected legal experts, besides the Marga Institute’s ‘Narrative 3’ on the last stages of the war. However this inability cannot be the basis on which foreign policy is designed. 

The hugely damning perception of Sri Lanka, its State, its military and the last war needs to be corrected. It is with this expectation that there have been calls from citizens, the media and parliamentarians to use Lord Naseby’s evidence-based statements that no war crimes were committed in Sri Lanka, to restore the country’s reputation in the world and to re-examine the basis on which the UNHRC resolutions were adopted. It is incumbent on the Sri Lankan Government to attempt it, however daunting the task might seem. 

Delaying this task in the hope of economic support has not been profitable. It has not even been necessary. When one looks around the 21st century world, there are clear signs that a new world order is emerging, and it is multipolar. Mercifully, this reduces the need for less developed countries to endure the hypocrisy they often had to put up with in return for help with economic development. Even India, our closest neighbour, one with important sub-regional electoral considerations, has not insisted on unrealistic accountability mechanisms, and desisted from tying their economic investment and cooperation to such demands.

In September this year, President Xi Jin Ping of China speaking in Moscow said that the world needs “a new model of international relations featuring cooperation and mutual benefit”. He said that “the right of people to independently choose their development paths should be respected…and international fairness and justice maintained”.

In a major shift in their international policy China has announced that they will play a much bigger role in world affairs, including at the UN. President Xi announced at their Party Congress in October that “it will be an era that sees China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind”  adding that “China now leads the world in trade, outbound investment, and foreign-exchange reserves”.

President Putin of Russia, who recently played a major role in successfully eliminating an especially virulent terrorist threat to the Middle East and has immediately embarked upon organising post-conflict development talks in Sochi, has said recently, “We must respect sovereignty as the basis underlying the entire system of international relations.” He even managed to get President Trump’s cooperation on Syria and issued a joint statement which demonstrates that the pre-conditions of earlier US declarations that ‘Assad must go’ are no longer relevant for peace talks in Geneva.

The emerging rules of engagement in international relations as articulated by the two major powers China and Russia are different from the old ones. President Putin says “history is made by humans; we can have only a shared future. There can be no separate future for us, at least not in the modern world”.  This echoes closely, President Xi Jin Ping’s often quoted phrase, “a future of shared destiny”.  

In this shared future, China and Russia will trade in their own currencies. The BRICS countries will have their own alternative internet to mitigate the risk of the current one, a Russian initiative expected to be completed next year. OBOR will see large tracts of the world connected through road, rail and sea routes, using non-dollar currencies. ASEAN may overtake the EU as China’s largest trading partner in the future. Increased consumption patterns in China, Mexico and Vietnam have resulted in high economic growth in the APEC countries, revealing new and emerging markets. 

It is perhaps time to re-evaluate the beliefs that motivated the current Sri Lankan Government to co-sign the recent UNHRC resolutions. Given that at least one of the other co-sponsors, Britain, already had information in their possession that brought into question the reports that formed the basis for Resolution 30/1, the government should take steps to re-negotiate the resolution. This is different from “withdrawing from Sri Lanka’s international commitments”. 

In the context of the Naseby evidence, what made this Government reaffirm its commitments to Resolution 30/1 at the UPR? What were the foreign policy assumptions that indicated that renewed and unmodified commitment and even reinforcement was in Sri Lanka’s national interest?

It may be time to rethink those assumptions and present Sri Lanka’s case more accurately and comprehensively, and renegotiate the 2015 UNHRC resolution in Geneva, with the support of the large number of countries that engage with human rights in good faith.


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