EU, US resolutions and Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs follies

Thursday, 17 June 2021 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential project and its base, Sinhala militarist-ultranationalism, rested on an external tripod, two legs of which have disappeared: Donald Trump and now, Benjamin Netanyahu. This leaves only one, the most durable, standing—President Xi Jinping 

 


When Sinhala peasants standing in the fields and the Catholic Cardinal at the altar both call on the divine to punish the unrighteous in powerful positions, one knows that the crisis is deepening and widening as never before. 

The de-forestation, corporate farming fence-off of grazing land and water, displacement of elephants and above all the ban of chemical fertiliser, constitute as devastating an attack on the Sinhala peasantry as was the Waste Lands Ordinance of the colonial occupier.  

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential project and its base, Sinhala militarist-ultranationalism, rested on an external tripod, two legs of which have disappeared: Donald Trump and now, Benjamin Netanyahu. This leaves only one, the most durable, standing—President Xi. 

The G-7 meeting signalled the intention to “counter and compete with” China (Jake Sullivan) and “autocratic governments”. Days later the NATO summit declaration announced that “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the…international order…” How will the Gotabaya Government be impacted?

 

EU’s ‘eww!’

What’s most striking about the stinging EU resolution on Sri Lanka is the magnitude of the vote: 628 in favour, of 705. That’s 89%. To understand the EU resolution, the Government has simply to read the text. The content of the Resolution is generated overwhelmingly by the actions and inactions—the behaviour—of this Government.  Here are the most significant concerns and causes for the resolution:

“B. whereas the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has been steadily deteriorating, with the new Government rapidly backtracking on the limited progress achieved under previous administrations; whereas the space in which civil society and an independent media can operate in the country is rapidly shrinking;

E. whereas the Government of Sri Lanka issued Regulations No. 01 of 2021 on 9 March 2021, expanding the PTA and, inter alia, allowing for two years of detention without trial for causing ‘religious, racial, or communal disharmony’; 

F. whereas the PTA has been systematically used for arbitrary arrests and the detention of Muslims and minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Ahnaf Jazeem, a 26-year-old Muslim teacher and poet, and Hejaaz Hizbullah, a well-known lawyer for minority rights and the rule of law…;

H. whereas on 20 October 2020 the Sri Lankan Parliament passed the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, reinforcing the executive presidency; 

J. whereas there are clear signs of the accelerating militarisation of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka; whereas since 2020, at least 28 serving or former military and intelligence personnel were appointed to key administrative posts; whereas those appointments include at least two senior military officials who were implicated in UN reports in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the conflict; whereas many suspects in police custody as well as inmates in Sri Lankan prison complexes have been killed; whereas the most recent cases include deaths in police custody in May 2021; whereas 11 inmates at Mahara prison were killed and 117 others injured when guards opened fire to control a riot over COVID-19 conditions in November 2020;”

Things are even clearer in the operative part of the resolution:

“1. Expresses deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations as described by the most recent UN report on the country, which lists among the early warning signs the accelerating militarisation of civilian governmental functions, the reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, exclusionary rhetoric, intimidation of civil society, and the use of anti-terrorism laws; 

4. Expresses grave concern about the arbitrary arrests and detention under the PTA without due process and access to justice, including for civil society activists, lawyers, writers and poets such as Hejaaz Hizbullah and Ahnaf Jazeem; notes with concern the detention of Shani Abeysekara, the former director of the Criminal Investigation Department; urges the Government of Sri Lanka to immediately give those detained a fair trial on valid charges and, if there are no charges, to release them unconditionally; 

6. Notes the adoption of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution and expresses serious concern about the resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control, and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency; 

7. Notes with concern the Government of Sri Lanka’s recent proposal to enact a new law on disinformation despite concerns raised by civil society organisations about the threats such a law could pose to the freedom of expression; urges online platforms to take proactive steps to moderate the circulation of hate speech and disinformation online in the Sinhalese and Tamil languages; 

11...asks the Government of Sri Lanka to end the practice of appointing current and former military commanders implicated in serious abuses to senior Government positions; 

12. Calls for a rigorous, impartial and complete investigation into the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in line with international legal standards; calls, furthermore, for those against whom there is evidence of culpability to promptly be brought to trial, and for those for whom there is insufficient evidence to be released;” 

GSP Plus is not our right but a preferential concession which is conditional on compliance. This massive vote on Sri Lanka is but the tip of the iceberg.  Roughly speaking, this is the opinion of the European public and can next manifest itself in a drop in tourism, the shrinkage of the purchase of Sri Lankan products with or without the GSP, resolutions in the Parliaments of each EU member-state to institute accountability inquiries, and targeted unilateral sanctions. 

 

American alarm

Next up—though it was tabled earlier than the EU Resolution—is the resolution before the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Congress. It is a bipartisan resolution, and one of the signatories, Danny Davis, a long-time critic of Sri Lanka on the Tamil Question, was a mentor of Barack Obama when he was a rising young politician in Chicago. 

The text of the resolution presented to the US Congress makes it undeniably clear that two Sri Lankan personalities are responsible for it even more than the drafters. One is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the other, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. If not for their conscious policies, the Resolution would not exist. It says, inter alia, the following: 

“Whereas in the absence of Sri Lanka implementing the recommendations of its own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission or instituting a credible justice mechanism to investigate serious crimes committed during and after the war, the United States sponsored resolutions in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2012, 2013, and 2014 calling in ever stronger terms for domestic action and reconciliation;

…Whereas Sri Lanka’s COVID–19 response has been led and executed by the military, exacerbating longstanding concerns regarding State surveillance, harassment, and discrimination against Tamil and Muslim communities;

…Whereas a 2021 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that the Government of Sri Lanka has, over the past year—

(1) elevated individuals implicated in war crimes to senior governmental positions;

(2) pardoned a convicted war criminal;

(3) reversed key democratic reforms and consolidated power behind the office of the President;

(4) obstructed efforts to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of war crimes;

(5) promoted majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric;

(6) engaged in surveillance and harassment of civil society organisations and human rights advocates; and

(7) allegedly employed security forces to abduct and torture dissidents;

Whereas the report warns that ‘Sri Lanka’s current trajectory sets the scene for the recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations’;

…Whereas no effort has been made to bring to justice those who are alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, no investigations have begun even on emblematic cases, evidence gathering is hindered through arbitrary arrests and threats by the State, and impunity prevails in the country with the outdated and the excessively harsh Prevention of Terrorism Act, which does not comply with international standards and has still not been repealed despite repeated promises by the government;…”

Had the Gotabaya Government made a categorical, time-bound, verifiable commitment in Geneva to fully implement the recommendations of the LLRC and Paranagama Reports, this resolution in the US House of Representatives, which if passed will doubtless make it in some form to the US Senate, would not exist.  

 

UNP undone

How does former PM Wickremesinghe come into it? The US Congress Resolution says: 

“Whereas following a change in government in Sri Lanka, the release of the OISL Report, and the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United States cosponsored with Sri Lanka a UNHRC resolution in 2015, HRC 30/1, which was reaffirmed in 2017;

Whereas under HRC 30/1, the Sri Lankan government made transitional justice commitments for postwar reconciliation including—

(1)an accountability mechanism with a special court inclusive of Commonwealth and foreign judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and investigators;…”

A few months ago, former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera contradicted the popular myth that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe went along meekly with the wording of a US-UK resolution. In actuality, disclosed Samaraweera, that resolution was drafted by Wickremesinghe himself, after which he (and Samaraweera) reached out to the US and the UK—but not India or any Asian state—to secure co-sponsorship. 

Thus, it was Ranil Wickremesinghe who committed the Sri Lankan Government to:   

“…an accountability mechanism with a special court inclusive of Commonwealth and foreign judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and investigators…”

This was a key trigger of the tectonic shift of the Sinhala voter and the UNP’s extinction at the next election. Of course, Wickremesinghe’s UNP had been dying slowly. “Judging by current trends and data of a decade, the UNP, if it remains under Ranil Wickremesinghe, would be overrun and crushed to a pulp, not even reaching double digits in terms of seats.” (The Sajith Solution | The Sunday Leader – http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2010/04/25/the-sajith-solution/comment-page-1/). My prognosis was way back in 2010 and analytically expanded in 2013 (A Terminal Crisis of Electoral Existence – Colombo Telegraph – https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/a-terminal-crisis-of-electoral-existence/). 

The Wickremesinghe UNP behaved as if the ‘international community’ was located in the North-Western quadrant of the world map and Sri Lanka was located there too. This is best evidenced by the fact that not a single Asian state or a state of the Global South cosponsored the 2015 Geneva resolution. Wickremesinghe also behaved as if external relations could govern internal policy and conducted without a domestic mandate, against national sentiment. 

Sri Lanka’s politics swung autocratic-ultranationalist and turned unipolar, making for a perfect docking with Xi’s China, thanks to the backlash generated by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s profile and policies. 

 

GR Govt.’s own-goals

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s foreign relations seem predicated on the assumption that we are a second Israel but located as a neighbour of China, not India; i.e., as if Sri Lanka is the kind of Taiwan that China would prefer to have. President GR apparently assumes the West is losing the great game and can be ignored; the Port City is Aladdin’s lamp; and external relations can be conducted according to the blinkered nationalist narcissism of his hard-core supporters.

Though the Tamils and Muslims are marginalised minorities under this majoritarian regime, they are transnational minorities. International concerns about their treatment cannot be domestically quarantined. Repercussions arising from that treatment cannot be prevented from impacting upon the island and its economy. 

Christian concerns on the Easter massacre investigation and prosecution cannot be ignored. The Christian—chiefly the Catholic—community is the most institutionally globalised of Sri Lanka’s communities, as the Cardinal has begun to remind the rulers. 

Permitting China to enjoy a preponderance of influence on this island which is located in the traditional sphere of influence of India, which in turn is a crucial strategic ally of the West, and represents a power-projection by China outside its own traditional sphere of influence into the Indian Ocean, which as half of the Indo-Pacific, is of crucial concern to a resurgent West, will inevitably prove costly and counter-productive. 

Without India’s buffer, Sri Lanka cannot be protected from Western pressure or condemnation. Without piggy-backing on India and leveraging its partnership with the USA, Sri Lanka cannot win back the West. 

 

Democracy and Lanka’s national interest

Conceptualisation of the National Interest arises from structural factors (e.g., geography) and situational ones. Perceptions of national interest change as threat-perceptions change, and those threat-perceptions may change as the character of a regime changes. Threat-perceptions and therefore perceptions of national interest also change in accordance with how other powerful countries view the regime as it changes. This is all the more so if the continental, regional or international situation has changed. 

A classic example is the inversion of Churchill’s position on Stalin’s Russia when the Nazi threat was manifest in Germany. More dramatic was the change in the line of the Russian Communists from World War I (opting out unilaterally, even with German troops on Soviet soil) to World War II (rallying and spearheading; calling for the West to open a Second Front). All these swerves and U-turns were occasioned by the qualitative change of the character of the political leadership and regime in Germany, i.e., Hitler and Fascism.

Similarly, the threat to democracy in Sri Lanka, not from outside or below, but from within the system itself, necessitates a change in our perception of the national interest. Whatever and/or whoever weakens the tendency to tyranny, whatever retards the drift to dictatorship, accords with our national interest. Whatever and whoever—external powers included—strengthens the tendency towards tyranny, goes against our national interest. Whatever and whoever counterbalances such external and internal autocratic actors, converges with our national interest. 

My argument is not in contradiction with national sovereignty. There is no ‘nation’ without ‘the people’ at its centre. In a democratic republic, national sovereignty arises from and is sustained by people’s sovereignty; never without it or against it.  The resistance and counter-pressure by the US-led democracies is far more in accordance with the sovereignty of the Lankan people, the foundation of our national sovereignty, than the project of those great powers which foreground national sovereignty but are allied with and thereby prop up the dictatorial drift and the erosion of popular sovereignty in Sri Lanka.    

Insofar as the Gotabaya Government is taking Sri Lanka on an irrational, unscientific course that risks agrarian collapse and food shortages; is shrinking democratic space and militarising the State and society to the point that a Myanmar-model dictatorship could substitute for or negate the outcome of free and fair elections in 2024; the bloodstained Myanmar junta is being shielded from international consequences by great powers under the slogan of sovereignty and non-interference; and the Sri Lankan Government’s “accelerated militarisation” (as the EU Resolution states it) is being propped-up and enabled by the same external players; the G-7 and NATO political pushback coincides with the national interest of Sri Lanka, the oldest democracy on the Afro-Asian continents. 

There is no contradiction—and there has never been and never can be—between Sri Lanka’s national interest as a State and the interest of democracy as a system.

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