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Sri Lanka at UNHRC : Does America want regime change?

US Under Secretary S. Sewall addresses the HR (US mission)
Kumar David
In my considered view the US is keeping its options open; it will not get so deeply involved in the pandemonium in Geneva unless it has a game plan. Its Sri Lanka (SL) resolution at the UNHRC has taken centre stage; briefings and lobbying overshadow everything else in the corridors.
The crucial issue is not the wording though stake-holders tear each others hair out re “strengthening” or “watering down”. The true dynamics of the next stage depend entirely on whether the government (GoSL) accepts the resolution and promises to implement it faithfully, or rejects it and the UNHRC makes its next move. Events that will unfold in the next 6 to 12 months depend on this choice; an immediate crisis if GoSL rejects; a slow brewing imbroglio if it agrees to go along and wrecks it in implementation, as it obviously will.

There are two crucial clauses in the draft. Clause 2 “Calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka: to implement the recommendations made in the reports of the Office of the High Commissioner, and also calls upon the Government to conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as applicable; to hold accountable those responsible for such violations; to end continuing incidents of human rights violations and abuses in Sri Lanka; and to implement the recommendations made in the reports of the Office of the High Commissioner”.
Clause 8 Welcomes the High Commissioner’s recommendations and conclusions on the need for an independent and credible international investigation in the absence of a credible national process with tangible results, and requests the Office of the High Commissioner to assess progress toward accountability and reconciliation, to monitor relevant national processes, and to investigate alleged violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka, with input from relevant special procedures mandate holders as appropriate . .”
Clearly there is ambiguity and overlap; intentional, deliberate. The overlap is in the phrase I have highlighted in Clause 8. It can be interpreted as saying the High Commissioner will “investigate”, in addition to the “independent and credible investigation” that SL is “called upon” to undertake. If GoSL accepts the resolution Clause 8 will be read as subordinate to Clause 2; the High Commissioner’s role will be assessing, monitoring and arranging assistance from special mandate holders.
If GoSL rejects the resolution and refuses to implement Clause 2, the way is open to beef up Clause 8 into an independent international investigation. This can be done by appropriate protocols if GoSL declares its refusal, now, on the floor of the UNHRC meeting or by a new resolution in September. In practices if GoSL says “no”, an international investigation will get rolling under Clause 8 straight away. Hence, however grudgingly, and with plenty of double-speak to pacify its extremist clientele, GoSL unless it is suicidally inclined, will find a way to go along with the final version and avoid head-on collision with the international community.
Does the US want regime change?
March 7 was the first consultation where the US presented the draft. The hall was packed. EU countries welcomed the resolution, some wanted to add text and surprisingly the edits strengthened it not it watered down. Uruguay and Chile spoke in support of the resolution, while Mexico was vocal but undecided. Japan spoke of the need for justice, suggesting it is moving towards supporting the draft.  Two countries spoke in favour of GoSL; Thailand and Pakistan and are sure votes against the US. The Africans are watching and waiting for a lead from South Africa. The Organisation of Islamic Countries, strangely, kept away from the 7 March meeting.
The US has stirred up a buzz; what is its possible game plan? Till recently I thought the US was not seeking regime change as it had no alternative to put in place. But this degenerated into a chicken and egg scenario; don’t change as there is no alternative, without change there will be no alternative. In the State Department’s view, I believe, matters seemed to be going from bad to worse and at some point during the last 12 months it snapped.
Why may the US stance on the SL regime have flipped to a new attitude? One reason is that American public and Congressional opinion about justice and human rights has to be assuaged and the second is the influence of the Tamil diaspora in Britain and Canada. A third it is that Washington, like Delhi, is fed up with Colombo’s insolence and untruths and wants to teach the upstarts a lesson. Again this is not how great powers make foreign policy. All three count but not enough to explain.
A fourth possibility is strategic; Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean, sea routes, proximity to India and a great and growing Chinese strategic and economic threat. But there is no Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean, nor will there be for a quarter century; China does not have a blue water fleet. Nor will the UNHRC fracas help; it is likely to push Colombo closer to Beijing. On the economic side Lanka is not a big factor in China’s great global outreach; Africa, Central Asia and South America matter more.  Therefore this too is a subsidiary not a decisive reason.
The US will note all this but the crucial link concerns political stability. The Americans are putting in motion a process of regime change which will deliver results some way down the road. I think they reckon the current regime is headed for an unstable period; the link with the North is eroding and no political solution is in sight, Muslims are alienated, and the rapport with India will deteriorate after the Indian elections. Most serious, perilous fault lines have emerged in the south on economy, autocracy and democracy. There is more than a whiff of instability in the air.
Since every global crisis ends on some White House or State Department plate, for reasons to do with America’s global position, maybe Washington would like to nip this one in the bud. If GoSL does not compromise in Geneva; if it is driven to paroxysms of irrationality and if extremism shows its face on the streets; then Washington’s plan is already half done thanks to Colombo! International mechanisms will get moving. If GoSL accepts the resolution, as wiser counsel is urging it to do in self-interest, then Clause 2 takes precedence and the American game plan gets operative if and when GoSL calculatingly fouls it up in implementation.
India and 13A
13A was 25 years ago; is India still emotionally attached to the narrative, is its self-interest still connected to devolution in Lanka? The answer to the first question (emotional attachment) is, yes but not strong. The Indian army lost 1200 jawans and there is sentiment that they should not have died in vain. At the same time rational Indians concede memories alone are no reason for retaining a policy if it serves no current purpose. Does India get any economic benefit from the Indo-Lanka Accord? None as far as I can see; it is exports, investments , CIMA, SAARC and such linkages, which have nothing to do with any of this that can be pointed to as of economic interest to India.
One factor apart from sentiment and memory that concerns Delhi is the affect of the Lankan Tamil issue on Tamil Nadu. Indian Tamils do care about Ceylon Tamils and more deeply about Upcountry Tamils. Tamil Nadu politicians also keep the issue alive as a punching bag against each other. Furthermore, if a future Narendra Mody government stands accused of appeasing Sinhala chauvinism in Lanka, it is Congress more than Tamil Nadu that will have a field day slamming Mody of treachery to the memory of the jawans, betraying Tamils and insulting Rajiv Gandhi.
Devolution, power sharing, self-administration and the like are matters of life and death for Ceylon Tamils living in the North and East and because of fraternal linkages for those living in the South. With the Indian commitment waning with the passage of time, the Tamils of Lanka and the TNA are wise to broaden their support base to secure breathing space for the community. Breathing space is another way of saying autonomy and devolution of power. So they need to win the support of other countries, not instead but in addition to India, as a backup to securing a political settlement at home. The relationships now being fortified with the United States, Britain, Japan and South Africa are needed for this purpose. The Tamils are not strong enough to get a fair deal by their efforts alone and expectations about India must not be exaggerated unreasonably; a wider support base is crucial not only for human rights purposes but also as pressure points in hammering out a political settlement.

South Asia Analysis Group 

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