Former Minister of Foreign Affairs UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera asserted that Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the co-sponsorship of the UN Human Right Council (UNHRC) Resolution had no impact on the Resolution itself and the other countries that co-sponsored it would take it forward even more “vigorously and vehemently”.
Below are excerpts of his interview with The Sunday Morning:
Why did Sri Lanka decide to co-sponsor a resolution by itself?
Sri Lanka was facing a serious international crisis when our Government took over in January 2015 because of the various promises President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the then Government had made to the international community, especially after the war. Of course, as usual, having not kept those promises and agreements, by 2014, the international community had initiated a very serious international investigation into the so-called war crimes and other human rights violations in Sri Lanka during the latter years of the war.
However, I think luckily for the country, the Government changed in January 2015 and one of the first acts I did was to go to Geneva and have extensive discussions with (UNHRC) High Commissioner Zeid (Raad Al Hussein) and we said that there’s a change in Government and unlike before, we are determined to make sure that we have an independent judiciary and therefore, there is absolutely no need for an international investigation because we are capable enough to do the inquiries ourselves within our own mechanism and according to the law of the land. Because we want ownership of any inquiry done by the international community and because of our belief that reconciliation is to succeed – certainly accountability and transparency – having amended (Resolution) 30/1, we agreed and then co-sponsored 30/1 because we wanted to own it.
We didn’t want the Americans, the British, the European Union (EU), and the rest of the world to be looking into and talking about us behind our backs. We wanted to be right there at the centre of things. I still think that it was the absolutely correct decision we took and I will always defend it to the hilt. In fact, I personally feel the country has been pulled back because of the short sighted decision by this Government to pull out of the co-sponsorship.
Why do you think this current Government withdrew from the co-sponsorship?
You have to understand that for them, the concept of reconciliation is rather alien. They basically crept back into power again by creating a wide rift between the communities in Sri Lanka. In fact, I was very happy when I heard the present Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in Geneva recently saying that Sri Lanka is a multicultural, multilingual, and multiracial country because up to the elections, they hounded and vilified me for saying the same thing – perhaps in different words. So having come into power by raising the ugly head of racism within the communities by encouraging racial tensions between communities – because it is very obvious that this present Government was behind many of the anti-Muslim hysteria which spread through the country during the last few years of our Government. They basically want to keep those extremist forces happy.
For the moment the Government is playing their tune but I sincerely hope that President Rajapaksa, although he may have used certain insidious and very unethical and immoral measures to come into power, now that he is in power, comes to accept the truth about the country which Dinesh Gunawardena said and tries to take the country on the correct path.
Following Sri Lanka’s withdrawal, how compelled is the Government to fulfil the mandate of the Resolution on Sri Lanka?
The first thing we have to realise is that even though we have withdrawn, the process will continue. What we have done is withdrawn from the co-sponsorship of the Resolution. So it does not mean that the other countries that sponsored the Resolution are going to stop it. In fact, they’re going to take forward those measures even more vigorously and vehemently than before, but unfortunately, we won’t even be there to give our side of the story and in the future, the inquiries and investigations will not be done within Sri Lanka, it will be done outside. So the Government is merely fooling the people by showing that they have achieved a great victory. It’s a great defeat not only for Sri Lanka’s foreign policy but this will again make Sri Lanka that international pariah it was before 2015.
As a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and as someone who is familiar with international diplomacy, what repercussions will Sri Lanka face for its withdrawal?
A lot. Again, I don’t know who is advising this Government, but you have to understand that the old-fashioned concept of what was called the Westphalian concept of sovereignty, where every country is considered absolutely sovereign in order to do whatever they please, is no longer valid; especially since the Second World War with the advent of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Unlike before, we can’t tell other countries “the people who we are killing are in our own country. Therefore, it’s an infringement on our sovereignty by commenting on violations here”. It’s no longer valid because we ourselves have submitted ourselves to international jurisdiction through signing all the agreements throughout history. So having done so, we can’t just walk out of it and expect the international community to watch silently without taking action.
Most probably, the GSP Plus agreement is in jeopardy and even some of our World Bank and IMF loans – where most of the funding comes from countries like the US – will also be under pressure if they consider us a rogue state. There is a great possibility that if this continues that there will be other leaders who will also face international travel bans and we will be again pulled further and further back into isolation. It’s a very sad situation. Having really seen the world welcome us back – we were back on the centre stage of international relations in the last few years – now again, we are sliding back into isolation. Isolation is deadly. The largest amount of exports from Sri Lanka are to the US and then to the EU. So how are we going to survive by antagonising these people? I don’t think there’s some special bravery in challenging the international order. You have to know to deal with them as equals.
What repercussions can we expect from the UN?
One of the achievements of our period was we managed to get Sri Lanka back into the UN Peacekeeping forces. In fact, it was (former US) President (Barrack) Obama and my friend Samantha Power – who was the UN permanent Representative in New York at the time – who really pushed to get Sri Lanka back to the Peacekeeping forces and as a result, many of our army personnel got an opportunity. So with this sort of situation, my feeling is that Sri Lanka will be barred from these peacekeeping operations very soon. That will be the first of many steps. Those are done in very subtle and slow ways. The international community knows how to tighten the screws; perhaps not in the way the Sri Lankan leadership challenges the international order by shouting obscenities and lifting their sarongs – the international community knows how to tighten the screws without us even knowing. So we have to be prepared for the worst now.
You talk of achievements of your Government. How much progress did your Government make under this Resolution?
On one side we have progress made because of the Resolution. The international goodwill which soared was because we co-sponsored it and they saw us as a responsible Government that was willing to be accountable to whatever may have happened in the past and also as a Government committed to reconciliation amongst its communities. As a result, there was a huge surge of international goodwill and of course, also as a result, the GSP Plus and all were restored. But even within the country, even though we may have not completed the road map we started for the reconciliation process, we made progress. Despite many obstacles, we made substantial progress; for example, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) – which was one of the mechanisms which we talked about in the Resolution – was set up. Now, this office is functional. Then we passed a legislation for reparations and we were also in the process of finalising and bringing into Parliament the Truth Commission which was also one of the mechanisms of the 30/1 Resolution. So these institutions are there as our legacy to the reconciliation process.
Is this a sign of things to come, where Sri Lanka isolates itself from the international community and its agreements and alliances?
It could be. This is what I mean. It is a suicidal self-defeating move. It’s not going to benefit the Government, the Sri Lankan people or the economy. Sri Lanka is where we are today, despite being one of the most advanced countries in Asia as we reached independence, because of our inability to come to terms with the nature of our multiracial community. So without understanding that fundamental truth, Sri Lanka can never move forward. Sri Lanka, as a country, can never move forward with an isolationist mindset.
The current Foreign Minister as well as the current Government has claimed that former President Maithripala Sirisena was against the co-sponsorship and that Parliament approval wasn’t given. How do you respond to this?
A sponsorship is not a legislative piece of paper. It is an agreement which the Government of Sri Lanka and those co-sponsors agreed upon. But what is misleading there is to say that President Sirisena didn’t know because every amendment and everything that was finally agreed upon was discussed with President Sirisena by me personally. Of course later, when President Sirisena began having dealings with the Pohottuwa people, he tried to distance himself from it but to say that he didn’t know is an absolute untruth. The other thing is, although this need not get Parliament approval, we actually had a debate on Resolution 30/1 and I remember noticing that the Leader of the Pohottuwa Mahinda Rajapaksa didn’t even bother to come to Parliament and raise his voice against it.