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Examining Sri Lanka’s Diplomacy Machine

”Strident calls for an international mechanism will be made this spring in Geneva. If no resolution gets through either of the next two sessions of the HRC (another session will be held this summer), then Rajapaksa’s government can probably rest easy as long as they stay in power.

As promised, the Sri Lankan government made the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) public last month. It has also recently released its “National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights: 2011-2016.”

The Action Plan was developed in accordance with a commitment the government had made in 2008, the last time Sri Lanka participated in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review.

Both documents are part of the Sri Lankan government’s strategy to placate international observers and convince people that there is no need for any kind of international assistance because the country’s domestic institutions are working just fine. Like the LLRC report, the National Action Plan contains some decent ideas and recommendations, but it is replete with missing and false information. For example, the section on the Prevention of Torture is laughable and worrisome.

The Sri Lankan government claims that it “maintains a zero-tolerance policy on torture.” This sweeping assertion directly contradicts loads of evidence, including the recent findings of the UN’s Committee Against Torture (CAT). The fact that the Ministry of Defense has been denoted as the “Key Responsible Agency” for ensuring the prevention of torture is perhaps more disconcerting.

The front-page story in last week’s Sunday Leader, which explains “that that some 500 people have been reported missing in the North and East alone over the past few years” should give people good reason to worry. The rule of law continues to deteriorate under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s watch. The government will present its National Action Plan at the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) 19th session in March.

What Will Happen in Geneva?
In theory, Rajapaksa’s administration has plenty to worry about. Lobbying and debate surrounding the next session of the HRC has already begun.

Many foreign governments recently made strong statements that the LLRC’s final report does not touch on the question of accountability. The Sri Lankan government refuses to look into credible claims that violations of international humanitarian law occurred at the end of the war; government officials are unwilling to go into any detail about what actually happened during the last phase of the conflict.

Strident calls for an international mechanism will be made this spring in Geneva. If no resolution gets through either of the next two sessions of the HRC (another session will be held this summer), then Rajapaksa’s government can probably rest easy as long as they stay in power.

Diplomacy is not always a zero-sum game, but Rajapaksa’s government knows that the final report of the LLRC and the National Action Plan are its two most potent lobbying weapons, as long as government officials continue to bend the truth or promulgate outright lies.

This is ironic because both documents distort reality and should actually be used against the government. They reinforce the notion that Rajapaksa’s administration does not care about human rights.

The processes surrounding the drafting and the finalization of the LLRC and the National Action Plan were deeply flawed and not at all independent. The LLRC’s lack of independence is well-known. (President Rajapaksa appointed the eight-member Commission himself). The true story about the National Action Plan appears to be less widely understood, especially outside of Sri Lanka.

The government’s drafting of the National Action Plan was quite devious. A number of civil society leaders, academics and genuinely independent thinkers were included in the eight-committee body during the initial process and the composition of the first draft of the National Action Plan. Yet committee members were not involved in the process after that.Now, the Sri Lankan government is falsely claiming that the National Action Plan was the result of a thoughtful, inclusive process. This is absurd. As Rohan Edrisinha (a member of one of the drafting committees) has already indicated, that was not what happened. Drafting committee members never did approve the final document, only the first draft.

In another clever ploy, this “watered down” version is being heralded as a step in the right direction. Few people are speaking out about this issue because they are afraid to do so. Rajapaksa’s government has benefited from a fragmented political opposition for years. Divisions within Sri Lankan civil society only make the government’s consolidation of power that much easier. In addition to some lively debate at the Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka’s human rights record will also be examined under the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) this year. The government’s propaganda machine is already in full swing. Sri Lankan diplomats will welcome many foreign dignitaries in January and February.

President Rajapaksa and senior government officials will use these visits as a platform to prepare a more complete misinformation campaign for Geneva in late February and early March. The Sri Lankan government will be touting both the LLRC and the National Action Plan as wonderful examples of how just and satisfactory things are in Sri Lanka.

The idea is farcical.

In January of 2010, the IMF declared Sri Lanka a Middle Income country. The war has been over for more than two years. International observers and NGOs are moving on to the next crisis: Libya, Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere. A new disaster or humanitarian catastrophe is always right around the corner. Nonetheless, what happened in Sri Lanka in 2009 cannot be brushed aside. One does not sweep ethnic tension under the rug and wait idly by, hoping that it disappears.

Looking Ahead
Again, in spite of the LLRC’s complete exoneration of the military, the report does contain some good recommendations about devolution, land rights, compensation for victims/survivors and demilitarisation. There are some decent thoughts and recommendations in the National Action Plan as well.

However, the chances that the Sri Lankan government will swiftly move to implement any of the solid recommendations are infinitesimal. Rajapaksa’s government has shown its unwillingness to follow through on almost all the agreements it made during the last session of the Universal Periodic Review in 2008. It disregarded the LLRC’s interim recommendations too. The word “recommendation” in Sri Lankan political parlance is meaningless. Why should anyone be optimistic this time around? Forget recommendations, the government continues to ignore its own constitution.

To take one example, President Rajapaksa’s intractable position on the devolution of power to the country’s Northern and Eastern provinces, something that is clearly articulated in the 13th Amendment of the country’s constitution, is not helping. Nor is the government’s current dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is starting to look more like a scene from Waiting for Godot and less like any semblance of political negotiation with each passing day.

Why would any rational person take President Rajapaksa’s recent statement about the “full implementation of the 13 Amendment plus” seriously?[1]

Despite some claims to the contrary, Mahinda Rajapaksa is not (yet) Robert Mugabe and Sri Lanka is not Zimbabwe. But this government has undoubtedly become more authoritarian since the end of the war. Just because the country has a history of “democracy” does not mean that continued democratic governance is a foregone conclusion. The erosion of checks and balances since 2009 has been significant. The passage of the 18th Amendment in 2010 reinforced this, as that legislation pulled even more power to the executive.
Some sort of resolution should get through the HRC this year. It might be weak and disappoint many, but it would be better than nothing. If the HRC fails to pass any resolution on Sri Lanka, it would be a humiliating display of fecklessness.

According to the HRC’s website, “The Council was created by the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 with the main purpose of addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.”[2]
Over the past five years, the HRC has proven that is very capable of making recommendations. It is the first part of the HRC’s mission that the body struggles with. Does the HRC actually address “situations of human rights violations” in a meaningful way?

Inaction on Sri Lanka would be a black mark on an institution that already has a dithering problem. It would be an embarrassment. If the HRC cannot crack down on Sri Lanka, when would it ever act? Should replacing the Commission on Human Rights with the HRC still be viewed as an improvement?

Tyranny and inaction may prevail this year in Geneva. If that were to happen, people will be asking many questions. This would be a good first question: What is the purpose of the Human Rights Council? A good second question would be: Are the proceedings of the Human Rights Council a colossal waste of time and money?

Giving Rajapaksa’s government a free pass on human rights empowers aspiring autocrats everywhere. It sends a clear signal to semi-authoritarian governments: Go ahead, do whatever you want; you will face no consequences for your actions.

A version of this article was first published in The Journal of Foreign Relations.

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