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The Geneva debacle and lessons still unlearnt

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene 
Sri Lanka’s humiliating defeat in the ‘war’ unsuccessfully fought in Geneva this week over the resolution brought by the United States is a textbook illustration of the combined effect of arrogance, bravado and ignorance. When such disastrous combinations determine the course of our foreign policy, should we be surprised at the consequences?

Sri Lanka warned on its human rights record

But still, lessons remain unlearnt. In the wake of this defeat at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister, former law professor GL Pieris declared to the world that voting at the UNHRC is ‘determined not by the merits of a particular issue but by strategic alliances and domestic political issues in other countries.’ The sheer absurdity of this statement is manifest. Strategic alliances and domestic political issues, are the very ‘pith and substance’ (to use his own terminology) of international affairs.

Yet is the External Affairs Minister waking up to these obvious realities only now?

For the very first time in our turbulent history, the country has been put on formal notice in regard to its human rights record by the United Nations. This is quite different from the normal monitoring that takes place anyway through treaty body mechanisms, special procedures, periodic reporting obligations and the universal periodic review process.

The adopted resolution calls for a time bound implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The stipulation that the advice and technical assistance provided by the Office of the High Commissioner and others should be “in consultation with and with the concurrence of” the Government, does not detract from the severity of this admonition.

So the massive propaganda, the exorbitant travel and lodging costs of propagandists blissfully unaware of the niceties of diplomatic lobbying, protests by government supporters in Colombo, the virulent and highly defamatory character assassination carried out by the state media against prominent critics and activists, all achieved precisely nothing. In short, lies, prevarications and threats did not work this time around.

Dysfunction instead of democratic consensus

There was meanwhile not an iota of sincerity about the Government’s empty promises that it would address the issues raised in the LLRC Report. Whatever lingering doubt that remained in this respect was dissipated by the disconcerting visuals of Minister Douglas Devananda sitting stoutly behind Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe as part of the government delegation at the UNHRC. This is the very same leader of the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Front in respect of whom the LLRC had called for a full investigation into several complaints of gross human rights violations. The irony of such blatant defiance was palpable.

That said, the March 2012 Geneva debacle was brought about not only by the resistance of the ruling politicians but also by the culpable inaction of the intellectual and professional ‘elite’ in Colombo who hesitated to come to an immediate positive consensus on the LLRC Report in December 2011.
As these column spaces emphasized that very Sunday two days after the public release of the LLRC’s final Report on December 16th 2011, whatever may have been the motives in creating the LLRC and whatever may have been the deficiencies of its process, the gravity of the Rule of Law crisis engulfing Sri Lanka had obviously heavily influenced the Commissioners in writing their observations.

This did not mean that the LLRC Report was an end in itself. There was obvious hesitancy in dealing comprehensively with war time accountability. The LLRC’s careful skirting of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution raised justifiable questions as did its reluctance to critically question the independence of the prosecutorial and judicial branches from the executive. But to expect miracles from a Commission reporting on the actions of an incumbent and extremely autocratic administration was to be quite unrealistic.

The LLRC Report therefore had to be welcomed, warts and all, as an undeniably courageous first step. Yet instead of a democratic consensus, we had total dysfunction. The ruling party, true to form, talked of roadmaps and time needed to consult with constituent political partners. Nationalist parties on both sides of the ethnic divide discredited the LLRC. And strongly consistent public opinion to the contrary was evidenced only ad hoc by those having the strength of their convictions.

Two possible divergent scenarios in the future

So what does Sri Lanka have in store in the months ahead? There are two possible scenarios, one leading towards an eventual economic and political meltdown and the other envisaging a most difficult path of recovery from decades of conflict, death and disappearances.

On the one hand, this Government may well continue on its heedless path, indulging in more lying, more dishonesty and more prevarication. This will provoke a complete confrontation between Sri Lanka and those countries (including India) with which we have major economic and political ties. Moreover all is not well domestically with outbursts of sullen public anger and a worsening economic situation. Despite the hype, the crowds marching on embassies in Colombo in protest against the US resolution looked ‘manufactured’ quite unlike the spontaneous reactions that were seen in 2009. This amounts to a dangerous mix of uncertainties on the international and domestic fronts.

Open violation of the UNHRC resolution (as non-binding as it is) will certainly bring the country closer to an international mechanism on war crimes and drag Sri Lanka into even muddier international waters. This risk has arisen solely as a result of the crass attitude of this Government in thinking that it can behave in the corridors of the United Nations like a village ‘chandiya’ or ruffian.

In the second scenario, the implementation of the LLRC’s recommendations would be evidenced by putting our own house in order even at this late stage as opposed to reacting to international diktat. Measured diplomacy must be evidenced. The Government must not assume that all its critics are enemies of the country. Crude character assassination of dissenters through the state media must stop. Most importantly the integrity of legal and justice institutions must be restored. Heeding clearly evident warning signals From a different perspective, those who see Sri Lanka’s problems of accountability exclusively through the narrow prism of an international mechanism on war crimes must also broaden their understanding of complex issues.

When genuinely espoused, such an approach may well be occasioned in despair over a draconian government but nevertheless, this view remains remarkably insensitive of the multiple tragedies suffered by all Sri Lankans through decades of violence.

It is the overwhelming duty of moderate public opinion, even at this late stage to urge the immediate restoration of the Rule of Law with its long term results of war time accountability, justice and reconciliation accruing to all the people of Sri Lanka. We cannot be seen to be so democratically degenerate that this possibility is not even envisaged.

And insofar as this particular Government is concerned, classical Greek mythology beautifully dramatizes the high price extracted by the three Furies on kings and princes who through extreme hubris, mocked at the Gods themselves. In modern day times, this is the inevitable nemesis which visits political rulers who believe (quite mistakenly) that their power is unassailable.

Our political elite will do very well, in its own self interest, to heed clear warning signals at this most crucial juncture.


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