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Monday, December 11, 2023

International Pressure as part of Democratization: Possibilities and Limitations

Laksiri Fernando
‘International pressure’ is something much talked about these days particularly in the context of the impending 3rd resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC next month. If one is not totally blind or prejudiced, it is clear that as a result of the previous two resolutions (2012 and 2013) and concurrent international pressure, that the Rajapaksa regime was kept under scrutiny and the slide towards gross violations of human rights and authoritarianism was to a great extent arrested. If not for that international pressure, much worst things could have happened. The holding of the NPC elections was one good thing, among others, of this international pressure.

On the other hand, one could also argue that as a corollary to this international pressure, the previously moribund LTTE forces in the Diaspora and in Sri Lanka have received much sustenance and that has been inimical to reconciliation or democratization process in the country. The US officials visiting and sitting in Sri Lanka have made many contacts with some of the dormant sections of the LTTE and given much hopes and perhaps dead ropes to them. The US is notorious for these intrigues.

Now the Secretary to the President is pleading to the international community that they have done everything humanly possible to implement the LLRC report which was one of the recommendations or pressures of those resolutions. It should be kept in mind that the LLRC itself was an outcome of the international pressure. The newest offer from the President himself appears to be a ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ of the South Africa style as announced through the paid NBC TV program. The US and UK on the other hand say that there is a major deficit in the balance sheet of the LLRC implementation and that is the non-compliance of accountability or failure to investigate the alleged human rights and international humanitarian law violations at the last stages of the war.

Above are some of issues of the international pressure and the government’s reaction to them.


The democratization of the Sri Lankan polity, for the benefit of all communities, is not limited to the issues of accountability. A greater understanding on this matter might be necessary. Changing of the authoritarian presidential system and the distorted electoral system has been on the agenda of democratization for over two decades now. It is over and above that, the 18th Amendment elevated the presidential system into almost a ‘family dynasty’ by abolishing the limited term rule and the independent commissions of the 17th Amendment. Even the National Human Rights Commission has now become a supine instrument of the regime. The onslaught on the judiciary came soon after, with the impeachment of the Chief Justice and many other manipulations. It is not only the electoral system that needs to be democratized, but also the political processes, including the internal democracy of all political parties. What we have today in essence is a constricted democratic system.

The modern highways and beatification of cities are good things, but those cannot camouflage the political brutality or corruption and the mismanagement underneath.

The importance of accountability in respect of the last stages of the war, for the issue of democratization, is that the resistance to conduct such investigations on the part of the government smacks the rule of law, transparency and democratic governance apart from international obligations on human rights and international humanitarian law.

Possibilities and Limitations

Any itemization or annotation of democratic tasks of the country (as briefly outlined before and others) would tell us that some of the matters can or might be achieved under international pressure, but not all. That is why we need to be aware of the possibilities and also the limitations of international pressure. Except under extreme circumstances, for example the war defeat of Japan, total positive changes cannot be made by the international actors alone in democratizing a country.

Under the existing international legal system (i.e. UN Charter), gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law are matters that the international community or organizations could legitimately pressure national governments through various ways and means. The UNHRC is one of the main mechanisms, whether it invariably exceeds its limits or not. This is something that the GOSL hides from the ordinary citizens, misleading them for obvious political reasons.

On these legitimate issues, there are critics or those who exert pressure, whatever the reason, and there are defenders. When there are pressures, there are also reactions from national governments to circumvent these pressures and for example GOSL has been attempting all their tactics and strategies in the past in this respect. It is unfortunately like a ‘political game’ on the part of all protagonists and detractors. International pressure also might not be completely successful in a national vacuum or in an extremely hostile environment. The reason is that international pressure can be counted only as one factor, or rather a subsidiary one, among other factors or processes.

I may repeat what I said in the Preface to Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka in 2002 in respect of human rights development which is equally valid for democratization in our countries.

I have been of the opinion for some years that three main political processes shape and condition human rights circumstances in our countries, to mean the underdeveloped and Asian countries, for good or for bad. These processes are namely: 1. internal political mobilizations by civil society organizations; 2. state-making by political leaders; and 3. International influence by multi-national organizations and Western countries.

The first point that needs to be stressed based on the above observation is that international pressure should not be taken in isolation. That is part and parcel of a larger process, where internal or national democratic mobilization takes or should take the role of the major catalyst. Democratization ultimately is a task of state making and constitutional change. That is how it would culminate or put into practice. Based on the experiences of developed countries, Charles Tilly once said the following (Coercion, Capital and European States, p. 101).

When faced with resistance, dispersed or massive, what did rulers do? They bargained…All this bargaining created or confirmed individual and collective claims on the State, individual and collective rights vis-à-vis the State, and obligations of the State to its citizens.

Do our ‘rulers’ dispose to bargaining or change, faced with legitimate international pressure or internal political mobilizations or claims? This is hardly the case at present. The situation in Sri Lanka at present is extremely precarious particularly in respect of the leaders’ willingness to concede the legitimate claims of the international community (or the UN) on human rights; or much less on the legitimate democratic demands of the people. On the latter matter, the unfulfilled demand to abolish the ‘executive presidential system’ is the best example. Another is the aborted promise for a 13+.

The following are some of the markers in understanding the present predicament.

Present Dynamics

The regime has found a ‘lowest common denominator’ for democracy and that is the circumscribed elections. All other aspects of democracy i.e. checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, rule of law, people’s rights and freedoms etc. are gradually reduced and/or condensed. It is true that this ‘common denominator’ is also applied in the North and boasted about as ‘democratisation.’ The whole country in this sense is equal now at a rudimentary level of democracy. Elections are circumscribed in the sense that the State apparatus is blatantly used for the ruling party, not to speak of misinformation, violence or vote rigging (within the possible limits or as necessary for the regime).

The success of the circumscription of elections however depends on the degree of counter mobilizations by the opposition as it was clearly shown by the Northern PC elections. In the South at present, however, the counter mobilizations by the opposition are pathetically weak. In addition, the ruling UPFA has its own political mobilizations both against the international pressure and in hostility to any authentic democratic demands of the people. The opposition unfortunately has not yet been able to make a dent in this situation due to internal disputes, leadership struggles and disunity between various parties and organizations. It is in this context that the proposal for a common candidate and a new leadership is put forward for the next presidential elections.

For the international pressure to succeed in the direction of democratization there should be a necessary threshold of political mobilization/s in the country. If we take the accountability issue in isolation, there is of course a commensurate political mobilization in the North. This is abundantly clear from the NPC resolution, calling for an international investigation, and that resolution to me is completely legitimate. But this is not the case in the South in any tangible manner. This is an issue that the country appeared to be terribly divided on or confused, until yesterday’s interview by Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero came in like a shower in a desert. The failure of the opposition to counter the ‘pseudo-patriotism’ of the ruling regime is one ideological reason for this situation.

What is to be done?

There are those who mistakenly believe that a trigger for change could come through international pressure alone. That to me is a false hope, and not ‘politically correct.’ There are those who even believe or wish that the top Rajapaksa decision makers could be dragged into The Hague and then the country could live happily ever after. That is not correct either. If that were the case, it should have happened not now but before. Anyway, revenge is not the purpose of democratization or resolving Sri Lanka’s problems. Most probably what the US might do is to bring a stronger resolution this time focusing mainly on accountability issue and proposing an international investigation.

While the regime is opposing any international investigation, it now proposes a belated ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ (TRC) to buy time and circumvent an independent international investigation. There is nothing wrong in having a TRC to investigate or deal with a longer period or other matters, but the investigation of the last stages of the war is a moral and a political obligation on the part of the government. It is a moral obligation since not yet determined number of citizens was killed during the last battles between the army and the LTTE, and there are credible allegations, as well as unconfirmed evidence, that killings and other violations took place when some of the LTTE cadres and others were captured or taken into custody. This is not to hide heinous crimes that the LTTE had committed during their reign.

There are credible allegations reported both by the LLRC and the UN Darusman report -committed by the government forces and the LTTE. There are many other sources including Channel 4 to the same effect. There is also a practical necessity for these investigations to be conducted since the perpetrators are still at large and would commit the same crimes in the future. Investigations are a must for a disciplined army, or otherwise the allegations are an affront to the other professional soldiers. The investigations however should be a judicial process and not a political one. After taking all the factors and concerns into consideration, what the opposition could perhaps propose or call for is a ‘Joint International-Domestic Investigation’ to safeguard all legitimate interests.

There is a glimmer of hope in the statement made by Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero yesterday in an interview, clarifying his position on the international concerns or pressure on the subject of accountability. He has said as quoted by Kumar David (Colombo Telegraph),

“Sri Lanka is a part of the international community, we have to abide by international norms, and if there is a call for an international investigation, I have no problem in agreeing. If we have done nothing wrong we can go before an international investigation and vindicate ourselves.”

National mobilization for democracy or democratization obviously is the most important task ahead for Sri Lanka and for the opposition. However, that cannot be done without a correct perspective or attitude on international influence or pressure on human rights. Sobitha Thero has forthrightly calcified that matter.
– Sri Lanka Gaurdian


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