Sunday Times Editorial: Geneva: Be substantive, not combative Slowly but surely, the dreaded United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions have stealthily crept up. A resolution against Sri Lanka — sponsored by the US and promoted by Britain and India — is on the cards this month. With the solitary backing of China from among the big and powerful nations, it would be a Herculean task to defeat the resolution in the 47-member Council.
The reaction from Colombo continues to be one of bewilderment followed by incoherent chest-beating pronouncements. Like the rabbit caught in the car’s headlights, we have seen a political paralysis for months on end not knowing how to meet this challenge.
What we do know is that the US-sponsored resolution will follow the contours of the recently made public report on Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay so that the US can attract the maximum number of votes in its favour. This would include, in some form, a call for an international war crimes tribunal in the absence of a ‘credible’ domestic inquiry into the events that culminated in the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Post-2009 incidents relating to good governance issues will also be thrown in for good measure.
That Dr. Pillay’s report is biased is obvious, and her office is no doubt coordinating with the Western sponsors of the resolution. But the Government’s reaction to her report released this week has unfortunately been less substantive and more combative. It has failed to give voting members who are ‘on-the-fence’, so to say, a handle to argue in Sri Lanka’s favour. At this late stage, when there is a flurry of activity lobbying Council member-states, the strategy must be to get more abstentions and thereby fewer ‘Yes’ votes for the resolution. For this, the Government should have, for instance, exploited the ‘hole’ in the UN High Commissioner’s report that has already pre-judged the work of the Maxwell Paranagama Commission on Disappearances, which has only just commenced work.
The UN High Commissioner, like most of the Western countries similarly pre-judged and dismissed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) when it was set up, saying the Commissioners were Government lackeys, only to welcome its findings and run with it using it as the benchmark for post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
The Government should have argued this point and cited the West’s stance pre- and post-LLRC as an example of their prejudices and to show that domestic inquiries do work. It would have given Sri Lanka’s ‘friends’, especially those in the Non-Aligned Movement, an opportunity to say that a firm assurance on accountability in implementing the LLRC recommendations and that of on-going Commissions — and some relief on land matters, war widow headed families, livelihood issues, disarming illegal paramilitary outfits etc., would require them to give Sri Lanka more time.
What would an adverse resolution in Geneva mean to the Government and the people of Sri Lanka? In a technical sense, a resolution at the UNHRC that involves matters falling within the internal jurisdiction of states means little. Several countries have opted to ignore them; more recently, Israel, that was asked to investigate its military operations in the Gaza. (Later, Israel did have some internal inquiry and punished a few soldiers to end the matter). However, repeated UNHRC resolutions and continued non-compliance can eventually give way and graduate, especially when they are sponsored by the US, to unilateral sanctions or collective UN Security Council strictures.
Once it gets to that stage, if it does, then it becomes serious business. Just last week, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on one individual — the former President of Yemen. Sanctions and strictures can be country-specific or against individual persons.
Like in many things diplomatic, even the vetoes of Sri Lanka’s “all weather friends” (which the Government is increasingly relying on by the looks of it), have a shelf-life. That is what happened to these vetoes on Iraq, Sudan and even Iran. Therefore, although there is no immediate danger of punitive sanctions ‘directly’ being ‘imposed’ by the UNHRC, it could be the precursor for that eventuality. The West is firmly convinced that the Government in Sri Lanka is pussy-footing the issues that the West is pursuing. So for the Government to do nothing is to do so at its own peril.
Take the political developments that have climaxed in Ukraine this week. The incumbent strongman President was ousted by people-power and he has fled to Russia. Viktor Yanukovych, the poster-boy of democracy of the West once, was welcomed at the White House and addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington. This week, his Government was booted out by a people’s movement backed by the European Union (EU) and the US.
It showed how the EU – and the US, have no qualms about summarily overthrowing even an elected President — and from the doorstep of Russia which propped up the Yanukovych regime. The Russians are infuriated, but it appears there’s little they can do. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was a good friend of the ousted Ukrainian President, making a state visit to Kiev, its capital, not long ago. Such is the overarching reach of the US and the EU to enforce regime change — even if the President is an elected one. They will do what it takes if it is in their interests directly through the UN or insidiously. They will follow the legend of the well known sports goods manufacturer, Nike; ‘Just do it’.
The silver lining however, is that President Barrack Obama is not a ‘hawk’ like his predecessor. His philosophy is not to make global aspirations of democracy the animating force of his presidency. His likely successor Hilary Clinton may well be different. President Obama has been blamed domestically by some for his disinterest in democracy promotion around the world but he has been turned off by America’s crusading streak and the dashed hopes of the ‘Arab Spring’.
It is therefore unfortunate that the Rajapaksa-Peiris foreign policy did not seize the moment to reach out to the White House or the topmost-levels of the US State Department where the minions are spearheading this witch-hunt on Sri Lanka.
The Government, if it was smart, had – and still has – a lot of space to influence US policy. Instead, it relied on China, making trip after trip to Beijing and none at all to Washington. Unless, of course, this Government is overly obligated to Beijing to move into its orbit and sphere of influence. A progressive increase in abstentions is the way forward in Geneva given the political clout of the sponsors of the resolution and to show the West that the Rest have lost interest in these resolutions because the Government of Sri Lanka is doing some ‘tangible’ work. That was how Cuba and Indonesia outsmarted the West when they were on the rack.
All this is on the assumption that the Government wants to prevent a harsh resolution in Geneva later this month. If strategy (deliberate or otherwise) is to use an adverse resolution for domestic politics then the Government can do business as usual and continue to indulge in megaphone anti-imperialist diplomacy but this would be at the expense of the wider interest of the country.