“Treachery? You must remember we are southerners. They have never betrayed their country. Time and again they have sacrificed their life for the country. We have a right to tell this to the world. Tears of innocent grieving mothers compel us to tell their story of pain and sorrow to the world. We will do it today, tomorrow and always. Remember that – SLFP MP Mahinda Rajapaksa on being accused of treachery for making representations at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in 1990 about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka (Parliamentary Hansard report 25 January 1991)
Vasudeva Nanayakkara, current Minister of National Integration and long-time friend and ally of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, tells a fascinating story.
In September 1990, after a violent insurrection had been crushed with brutal force by the United National Party Government at the zenith of its power, a young Opposition politician from Hambantota joined Nanayakkara on a journey to Switzerland. They were travelling to Geneva, where the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (the older avatar of the current UN Human Rights Council) was housed to lobby country delegations there.
According to Nanayakkara’s tale, Mahinda Rajapaksa accompanied him to Geneva, both of them penniless, with tickets and a night’s accommodation purchased for them by a mutual friend. The two Sri Lankan politicians obtained visitor accreditation to enter the UN premises and sat in the lobby for two days, waylaying every delegation that passed through those halls and trying to seize every possible opportunity to tell the world community about the human rights disaster unfolding in Sri Lanka. The two politicians were so relentless that they were finally granted an opportunity to make representations before the Commission.
The younger Mahinda Rajapaksa also handed over lists of the disappeared to the human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, in the hope the rights body would exert pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to stop the cycle of violence and terror in the island. Back home, a few months later, Rajapaksa was labelled a traitor by UNP Ministers, for carrying documentation about Sri Lanka to be given to the ‘Suddahs’ or foreigners. He retorted, as quoted above, that it was the right of grieving mothers to have their stories of pain and loss told to the world.
The other Mahinda
The story of this other Mahinda Rajapaksa is one greatly recalled more than 20 years later, when debates about traitors and patriots crescendo in Sri Lanka while the UN Human Rights Council sessions unfold in Geneva, bringing with it of late each year a host of international challenges for the Government headed by the same Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to champion human rights causes in the ’90s may have been motivated by electoral politics with the greatest number of victims of the post-insurrection crackdown hailing from the deep south, analysts say. Yet, it is not without irony that the same politician who made that impassioned statement in 1991 now runs the Government that recently amended the country’s anti-terror laws to aid any proposed crackdown against those making representations before the UNHRC in Geneva now or in the future. Or that he runs the defence establishment that recently stopped 11 busloads of people from the north – many of them women – from travelling to Colombo to lobby the UN office in the capital to help locate their disappeared family members.
Today, for only the second time ever in Sri Lanka’s history of being a UN member state, a resolution will be adopted against the country at the UNHRC in Geneva. Neither surprising nor unexpected, the second resolution, sponsored once again by the world’s most powerful nation, is a damning indictment on a country that survived nearly 30 years of conflict without attracting such serious international censure. In a surprise – and some analysts say potentially suicidal move – the Sri Lankan Government has decided, against the advice of its closest foreign allies, to reject the US-backed resolution to promote reconciliation and accountability in the island and seek a vote on the draft resolution when it is taken up for debate in Geneva today.
Resolution: Take II
Sri Lanka’s lack of progress on reconciliation and the all-important issue of investigating allegations of violations of international humanitarian law during the final phase of its conflict, as highlighted in a broad report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, prompted the second US resolution at the Council this year, and is likely to garner more support for the US move this year in comparison to March 2012.
Several countries that voted with Sri Lanka against the US resolution last year did so with a caveat: an appeal to Colombo to implement the recommendations of the Government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report and investigate alleged human rights abuses during the last phase of the war with the LTTE. Pillay’s report and remarks by the US and other delegations at the Human Rights Council this year that Sri Lanka has not adequately addressed the issues concerning the international community are likely to sway at least some of these voting member states of the council to have a change of heart this year.
The Rajapaksa administration has been busy posturing for the local electorate and therefore has consistently maintained that it was not negotiating with the US delegation on the language of the resolution. But as 21 March loomed ever closer, the fact that the Sri Lankan delegation was engaging with the US team is obvious. The sight of a large contingent of Special Task Force personnel outside the Horton Place official residence of US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Michele Sison last Saturday has also led to speculation that Colombo was engaged in eleventh hour negotiations with Washington.
The last draft
The final draft of the resolution includes a paragraph acknowledging progress made by Sri Lanka in the areas of resettlement, demining and infrastructure building, even though it also notes that much work lies ahead. This acknowledgement was something the Sri Lankan Government badly wanted included in the final text, to reflect some progress since the last resolution was adopted in 2012.
The resolution’s final draft, analysts say, is not merely an attempt to calm Sri Lanka’s fears but also to appease New Delhi, which has always sustained a degree of discomfort with country-specific resolutions and their language, but was perhaps compelled to go through with supporting the US-backed resolution last year due to massive pressure from the country’s southern states. In 2012, it was an open secret that New Delhi intervened with Washington to tone down the language of the resolution against Sri Lanka, following an eleventh hour plea from External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris to his former Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna.
This year, with the debate in the Indian Parliament over the Sri Lanka issue peaking early, and even resulting in the pullout of a key Tamil Nadu Party from India’s ruling coalition on Tuesday (19), no such pleas could be entertained, without creating further political chaos in New Delhi and the south. In fact, with rights groups and the Karunanidhi-led DMK furious about the dilution of language in the final text and citing it as further proof that New Delhi and Washington are going ‘soft’ on Colombo, the last thing India wants is to be credited with being responsible for the final language.
Headaches for New Delhi
It was no secret however that New Delhi was deeply concerned about some provisions in the first two drafts of the US resolution in circulation that it viewed as being overly intrusive. With its own problems in Kashmir, India remains cautious about the need to safeguard state sovereignty even when the world is scrutinising a country’s human rights record.
The Indian Government is also consistent about the fact the option of an international mechanism to investigate human rights abuses must only be explored after every domestic mechanism is exhausted, in spite of mounting pressure from its South about ‘war crimes’ and ‘genocide’ in Sri Lanka during the conflict’s final phase. It also remains fundamentally concerned with the devolution of power to the island’s north and east and the Rajapaksa Administration’s reticence on the issue has become a major bone of contention in relations between the two countries.
While India’s delegation to the UN in Geneva may not have necessarily engaged in overt negotiations on the text their concerns meant Washington also had decisions to make in terms of what the concessions would be. Between the three drafts of the resolution, the language varied based on how much broad support at the UNHRC could be garnered for the document, but also essentially, what the quality of that support would be, according to some analysts.
It has been repeatedly emphasised that Washington will not play in New Delhi’s backyard (with the exception of Pakistan) if the South Asian power was in anyway uncomfortable with its level of engagement. The inclusion of a clause welcoming the announcement of Northern Provincial Council poll in September this year in the final resolution for instance, was undoubtedly aimed at cementing a Government of Sri Lanka assurance that greatly concerns New Delhi.
The final manoeuvring on the text may have been Washington’s decision to ensure New Delhi was comfortable enough with the language to vote whole-heartedly in support of the resolution. India’s backing on the resolution lends credence to the process to make Sri Lanka move on reconciliation and accountability issues, since New Delhi completely supported the Rajapaksa Government in its decision to militarily defeat the LTTE in 2009.
Overall, Geneva 2013 has not been easy for India, with the level of passion in this year’s debates on the Sri Lanka issue in its Parliament being unprecedented. The debate that ended in 2012 with a question on whether New Delhi should vote for, against or abstain on the US-backed resolution, commenced in February this year in a much stronger place, in terms of urging the Centre to act.
The DMK wants India to move amendments to the US resolution that include the words war crimes and genocide in the text, former Indian External Affairs Minister and BJP strongman, Yashwant Sinha called on India to submit its own resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. Meanwhile Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have laid the focus squarely on New Delhi as the only Government that can force Sri Lanka to act on war time excesses. The controversial latest installment of the Channel 4 documentaries on excesses during the last phase of the war in the north in 2009 was also aired first in New Delhi before an audience of Indian politicians.
The debate in India over the Sri Lanka issue is unique, specialists on Indian politics say, because it is unheard of for regional politicians to be so consumed with the problems pertaining to India’s neighbours. Political parties outside the sensitive Tamil Nadu and other parts of the South have expressed serious concern about the Sri Lankan situation and have in fact chastised Indian Government MPs for addressing their answers about their Sri Lanka policy to Tamil Nadu MPs alone.
There is a sense, these analysts say, across the Indian political landscape that some great injustice has occurred in Sri Lanka. The effect of the Channel 4 videos and the media attention the last phase of the war in the island’s north has garnered, especially since the adoption of the 2012 resolution in Geneva, has made ordinary Indians much more aware about the situation across the Palk Straits. It is probably this awareness that is being reflected in Parliamentary debates.
Against better judgment?
What New Delhi did consistently advise the Government in Colombo about was to refrain from contesting the US resolution this year, since the numbers may indicate a worse defeat for Sri Lanka in 2013. It was reasoned that a consensus resolution would be less of an embarrassment for Colombo, which would then be stakeholders in a resolution as opposed to having it thrust upon them.Attempts were being made till the eleventh hour to convince senior regime officials that an uncontested resolution would be the preferred option. But a Government that has learned to be belligerent in all its diplomatic dealings with the West, has decided it will lock horns with the US delegation on the resolution, by challenging the draft and demanding it be put to a vote at the Council.
Earlier this week, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris wrote to the foreign ministers of UNHRC member states, calling for their support during the vote on the US-backed resolution.
Sri Lanka has rejected the resolution and sees it as an attempt to ‘single out’ and ‘humiliate’ one country, Minister Peiris’ letter states. It will be recalled that Colombo rejected last year’s US-sponsored resolution as well. But a little over a month after the resolution was adopted, Minister Peiris travelled to Washington DC for talks with former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where he promised his Government would implement a national action plan on reconciliation, a document that was unveiled in August last year and criticised by a large section of the international community for inadequately addressing post-conflict issues as prescribed in the LLRC report.
The resolution against Sri Lanka, or A/HRC/22/L.1/Rev.1, is one of two country-specific resolutions tabled at the UNHRC at the Council’s 22nd Session.
The other pertains to Myanmar and is also co-sponsored by the US. Pakistan, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, has also submitted a draft resolution on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories that calls Israel out on its rights abuses.
The Council traditionally leaves resolution debate and adoption for the last two days of its sessions, to allow member states and sponsoring countries to deliberate and negotiate on language in the preceding weeks.
Sri Lanka’s latest Geneva battle ends today, once a vote is called for and taken and the resolution, in all likelihood, is adopted.
Not quite a defeat, HRC 22 has offered the regime a little more time to show credible progress on winning the peace and making amends for the loss of human life during conflict.
The Commonwealth battles
But as the curtain falls on one major international battle for Colombo, it opens on another far more critical one as far as the Sri Lankan Government is concerned.
As hosts of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Sri Lanka has faced serious challenges regarding its suitability to host the major summit given its human rights record. These challenges intensified following the Government’s impeachment of the country’s 43rd Chief Justice in violation of two court rulings and the Commonwealth’s own Latimer House Principles that lays out the removal process for judges in Commonwealth states, in order to maintain the independence of the judiciary, which is a core value of the international grouping.
Later today, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), a core grouping of nine Commonwealth Member States mandated to assess “serious or persistent violations of the Harare Declaration, which contains Commonwealth’s fundamental political values” will teleconference ahead of its scheduled April meet. CMAG meets on schedule but can be convened by the Secretary-General when required to deal with a perceived violation of the Commonwealth principles and values or may meet in extraordinary session when required. Bangladesh is the Group’s current chair and its other member states include Australia, Canada, Jamaica, Maldives (suspended), Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago and Vanuatu.
Last week, the Government of Bangladesh notified Minister Peiris and the Ministry of External Affairs in Colombo that the CMAG would hold a special teleconference on 21 March on the insistence of Canada and at least one other member state in the grouping. The electronic conference was initially scheduled for Tuesday (19) but postponed subsequently. It was being speculated that the change of date was aimed at timing the meeting for after the resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC is adopted.
It was this development, which Colombo was noticed about early, that prompted Minister Peiris to undertake yet another mission to Dhaka to lobby the Government there to ensure Sri Lanka stays off the CMAG agenda in April. The Government is also attempting to lobby other countries in the CMAG to garner support against being listed as an agenda item.
Uniquely, it is the CMAG that has the power to suspend or expel member states from the grouping, if a state persistently violates the core values of the grouping. If Sri Lanka is included in CMAG’s April agenda, it would possibly be the first time a CHOGM host’s commitment to the Commonwealth’s core values of democracy and constitutional rule will be under scrutiny by the small yet powerful body.
If today’s meeting goes through as planned, it will likely set the tone for whether Sri Lanka will feature on the CMAG’s April agenda. Given the time crunch, it remains unclear whether inclusion in the agenda would actually force a change of venue, even though it will almost certainly determine the level of representation by Government attending CHOGM in Colombo. If Sri Lanka is included in the agenda, the development may also change the tone and scope of CHOGM 2013, but analysts say a change of venue is not finding favour with many Commonwealth member states at this late stage.
From an international perspective, Sri Lanka’s battles in 2013 are only just beginning. The Government desperately wants to play host at CHOGM and is focusing all its energies on ensuring the summit goes ahead in Colombo as scheduled. Yet, if all other matters of critical concern to the international community go largely ignored while the regime prances on the Commonwealth stage, 2013 battles will be nothing compared to what will be impending in Geneva and elsewhere in 2014.
Risking the Islamic bloc
On a separate front, with the antics of the Bodu Bala Sena and other hardline groups and their anti-Muslim campaigns operating in the country largely outside the ambit of State law enforcement, the Government is seriously risking the ire of the Islamic bloc of nations that has always offered unstinted support to Colombo in all its international dealings.
Sri Lanka’s pro-Palestine positions have found great favour with Islamic nations. But yesterday, following months of rising anti-Muslim sentiment, isolated attacks on Muslim enterprises, places of worship and more recently even people, the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a parent body of 57 member countries, expressed concern yesterday about escalating ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka, which has affected the island’s Muslim community and its businesses sector.
Interestingly Sri Lanka has been lobbying hard for observer state status in the OIC and was nearly successful until Islamabad effected a moratorium on observers in order to block India’s entry to the organisation. Like the Non-Aligned Movement, the OIC too has always been overtly Sri Lanka friendly. Yet, in an inglorious self-goal because of the regime’s inherent sympathy with hardline groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, the Government has placed those solid relations at risk by feeding into a perception that Muslims are being subject to persecution in Sri Lanka.
Despite being the home of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka cannot lay claim to such strong ties with a Buddhist bloc of nations in the world. Its two staunchest Buddhist allies are perhaps Myanmar and Thailand, while Sri Lanka has no diplomatic presence in staunchly Buddhist countries like Cambodia and Laos. To risk ties with Islamic states and allow groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya to feed the baser instincts of the majority ethnic group in order to safeguard the regime’s own support base is patently self-destructive. It also further reinforces the notion that the present administration is consumed with consolidating power locally at any cost.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa was busy taking Sri Lanka’s problems international in 1990, who could have possibly guessed that 23 years later, his Government and governance style would take Sri Lanka from being universally liked and respected as a small but mostly civilised state to being so perilously close to international isolation and rejection?