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Why Sri Lanka must ‘win’ at UNHRC

[Groundviews, Saturday, 3 March 2012 10:34 No Comment]

The following is an excerpt from a statement recently made by Ambassador Eileen Chambarlain Donahoe JD PhD, top US diplomat to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC):

The case of Sri Lanka is different and difficult. It is essentially dealing with large-scale civilian casualties, allegations of government involvement in large-scale civilian casualties during a civil war that took place over many years, but ended in 2009. It’s not an ongoing crisis. And for that reason, it’s slightly more challenging. In the circumstances of the world today the fact that it’s not a crisis makes it slightly more difficult.

The comment was of particular interest to this writer, as it corresponded to what he noted in a short presentation made at a Sri Lanka-related conference at the Eidgenössische Techniche Hochscule (ETH) in Zürich back in November 2011.The writer may quote the following section:

The military defeat of the LTTE is a fait accompli. Some two-and-half years after Colombo’s victory, and even in extremis, a decision to bring perpetrators of excesses into book will in no way help reverse the war victory, and the resulting psyche of a victorious vanquisher of separatism, which strongly characterises the post-war political situation in Sri Lanka and the manner in which the Rajapaksa administration functions. The allegations levelled against Colombo do not concern an on-going issue. They concern developments in Sri Lanka’s internal politics in the recent past, over excesses committed in the course of a military offensive that was, in principle, endorsed by key players in the international system. Despite the relatively strong consensus among Western states over the allegations, it by no means puts Colombo under pressure to change its internal policies and foreign policy priorities, let alone force itself back into a process of negotiations over contentious constitutional issues that concern the political aspirations of ethnic minorities.

Image courtesy Vikalpa from rally held in Colombo on Monday, 27th February. Unclear what the poster means, but the general thrust of it seems to gel with Chaminda’s submission.

Image courtesy Vikalpa from rally held in Colombo on Monday, 27th February. Unclear what the poster means, but the general thrust of it seems to gel with Chaminda’s submission.

The strategy is clear: while acknowledging the reality that Sri Lanka is no longer an ongoing issue, efforts are being taken to justify a UNHRC resolution in the name of reconciliation, human rights and accountability.

The last leg of the Sri Lankan war, or Eelam War IV has it has come to be known, was an anti-secessionist counter-insurgency operation launched by a sovereign government against its secessionist foe – a classified terrorist organisation in both the EU and USA. Throughout its existence, the LTTE acquired a notorious reputation by the recruitment of child soldiers, deadly suicide bomb attacks and high profile assassinations.

This was complemented by its unwaveringly adamant devotion to its stated original goal, a separate independent Tamil state in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka.

The island status of Sri Lanka was never conducive to this goal, either in terms of global trends or more relevant regional geopolitics. Circumstances were unfavourable for a tiny ‘statelet’ to be created in the northern tip of an island that had been governed as a single unit by the British for over a century, and whose post-Independence polity was extremely conscious of the preservation of the unitary structure of the state. The LTTE’s fatal error lay in a repeated misreading of this reality.

In hindsight, it appears that the LTTE also misread the support it received from India during the early years of the Jayawardene administration, when Indira Gandhi led the central government across the Palk Straits. Delhi’s tacit support to the LTTE at this time was a shrewd political strategy with its own reasons (strenuous Indira-JRJ ties, JRJ’s revival of close ties with the West, and probably the civic rights curtailment of the late Sirima Bandaranaike, Indira’s bosom friend, added hay to the fire), and once the dynamics of leadership were changed, the policy was also changed, and Delhi was back to its normal posture, working with the Jayawardene administration. If someone believes that Delhi had a consistent policy of supporting Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka, that assumption, to say the least, is something more than flawed.

Over the 1990s, the LTTE was offered repeated possibilities of seeking a settlement through political means, within the available space for accommodation. Political settlements to disputes of this nature cannot, as some may so desire, be sought beyond the realm of realism. They require practical, pragmatic and workable steps.

It was clear from the outset that neither Presidents Premadasa nor Kumaratunga, despite their concrete steps to talk to the LTTE, were in a position to show the slightest inclination to accommodate the LTTE’s ultimate demand – in its raw state.

The only way in which the LTTE could have found some solace was by carefully reviewing its strategy, and adopting a cooperative approach. This was precisely what it so vehemently condemned and ridiculed in 1987, at Premadasa-LTTE talks, at CBK-LTTE talks, concerning the subsequent political reform package, and, most importantly, during the Norwegian-facilitated talks of 2002-03. In the latter case, unprecedented efforts were made to expose the LTTE to mechanisms of political accommodation in divided societies. LTTE delegations even toured Marihamn in the Åaland Islands, which stand at the intersections of Swedish and Finnish rule.

But no such international exposure was capable of making the LTTE come to terms with the momentum of the day, and integrate itself fully into the political process. Instead, it conducted itself in such a way that the ‘peace process’ gradually turned out to be the beginning of its end. This was highly advantageous to the government of Sri Lanka, more than any military campaign it had launched until then.

To clarify the point, let’s consider the challenge of international exposure. The LTTE was not used to the niceties of excessive exposure to the media and the wider world, as governments generally are. It did not have the political maturity to interact with the world, at a time when the world was coming towards it. Peace processes impose codes of conduct upon terrorist/militant groups, and restrict their operational freedom. This was also the case of Irish republicanism during Northern Ireland’s long peace process. At two occasions in 1994, President Clinton issued US entry visas to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, to the absolute outrage of the British government, then headed by Prime Minister John Major. The first visa, issued on 29 January, was supported by Irish American politicians and the National Security Council, but opposed by the State Department. The second visa was granted on 23 September. The visas were generally viewed in Washington DC as a means of dragging SF into the political process, and making it pass the no-return line on its way to become part and parcel of the peace effort. This was, however, a very ambitious project. It was no easy game for SF, and its acceptance of the peace process was in itself a conflicting choice, as indicated by the subsequent sequencing of Provisional IRA ceasefires and repeated cycles of violence.

SF leaders ultimately chose the most advisable option before them – that of supporting the peace process – and maintaining that they will strive to achieve their goal for a united Ireland only through constitutional means. In Northern Ireland, dissident republican activism is never a threat to be miscalculated. Post-Good Friday 1998, such dissident factions were determined to sow the seeds of anti-peace violence, as it was shown by the Omagh bomb that exploded just four months later.

SF stood by the peace process, and to cut a long story short, benefitted from the changing electoral balance of the early 2000s, and emerged as the prominent nationalist/republican political party in Northern Ireland. Its political engagement led to the St Andrew’s talks in 2006, and subsequently enabled it to share power in the Northern Ireland Assembly. A dominant two-party system has emerged in Northern Ireland today, with SF sharing the reins of power with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Despite the substantive differences between the cases of Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka, the allusion here is to the manner in which SF handled its unprecedented international exposure in the 1990s to its benefit. The Provisional IRA subsequently followed suit, by expressing commitment to the peace process, and putting all its weapons ‘beyond use’ in 2005, in the presence of members of the International Commission on arms decommissioning (set up as part of the 1998 Agreement). While Irish republicanism thus entered a new era with its place at the forefront of Northern Ireland’s regional polity, the LTTE is now history. The rise of massive public opposition to the post-2002 peace process, the LTTE’s outright condemnation of the proposals for an interim governance arrangement (the so-called Oslo proposals), and its continuous inclination to play hard ball with Colombo during the latter part of the Kumaratunga administration and the early part of the Rajapaksa administration, were among the key facts that led to what happened in May 2009.

The decimation of the LTTE was not the sole brainchild of the Rajapaksa presidency. It is more accurate to note that it was the LTTE itself that cut its grave under its own feet, earned the wrath of the defence establishment, the government and most importantly, the large majority of the people of Sri Lanka.

Let’s come back to the present-day debate on a UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka. What is happening today is an effort to single out Sri Lanka, put her in a box with a tag as perpetrator of wartime atrocities. This (largely Western) attitude towards post-war Sri Lanka is extremely inconsistent, unjust and problematic. The island nation is not the first to have fought a counterinsurgency operation with heavy casualties. Probing such casualties is something that only time – and not pressure from the West – is competent of. The Chilcott Commission or any such mechanism is not comparable here. Sri Lankan forces did not invade a foreign land or breach the basics of international law. Instead, they were engaged in an essentially internal operation, and any probing into questionable deeds will only occur in accordance to how questionable internal security conduct has been probed elsewhere (the long-drawn Bloody Sunday investigation, the Historical Enquiries Team established in 2005 to examine atrocities from 1968 to 1998 and the March 2010 decision to abolish it within the following three years provide comparative examples). Some, especially those who were directly affected by the war (and most likely to have voted TNA eyes-closed at recent elections) may find this too sour to swallow, but this is the plain reality of the day.

The Western critique of Lanka and Tamil diaspora political activism are indeed mutually beneficial, as one provides the other with political fodder. They are complemented by a mostly exiled microcosm of Sri Lankan society – composed of all ethnic and religious groups – hell-bent upon demonising the government and its political leadership. The incentive for such action may lie in benefits such as increased funding for (oftentimes pseudo-) research initiatives, foreign travel, residence permits and citizenship in Western countries.

The phenomenon of Sarath Fonseka is also intertwined to all this. It is interesting to note the timing of the US affirmation that Mr Fonseka is a political prisoner, as Sri Lanka is just about to be discussed at the UNHRC. The entire Sarath Fonseka saga, to summarise, is the story of a man whom nobody wished to appoint as Army Chief – who was subsequently appointed, and thereafter maintained a head-on toughness in his dealings. His was a struggle for political power, but politics was for him unfamiliar ground, to the traps of which he fell prey. In no way is he a political prisoner, and his arrest, trial, imprisonment and future are all segments of a complex political game, in which his very imprisonment has proved to be beneficial to his foremost political benefactors (this however is the topic of another article, or a book, for that matter).

The US statement that the LLRC report is inadequate to address issues of accountability, and criticism over a credible action plan on implementing its recommendations point at a fundamental problem in the international system, that of prescriptive Western pontificating on how accountability issues are to be addressed in countries of the global South. Sri Lanka’s strategic position in China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy and Colombo-Teheran ties (at the hour of sanctions on the latter) are among the reasons that have prompted the US State Department to seek ways of keeping Colombo contained.

Bob Blake’s recent affirmation in Colombo that his government will support the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka (often interpreted as ‘against’ Sri Lanka) is a prime example of this approach. Contrary to what some are inclined to believe, Western (and especially US) ‘concern’ is not about the rights of a particular ethnic group, civilian victims or prisoners of war (which are all inevitable consequences of war, especially anti-secessionist counterinsurgency operations). Instead, theirs is a concerted strategy to keep Colombo on its toes and ensure that Washington DC is placed at a vantage point to keep an eye on the region.

The challenge before Colombo is that of sailing through such tricky geopolitics with tact. Prescriptive Western formula can only create disruption and worsen existing problems. By no means does this imply that all is rosy in Lanka, but a Western-backed UNHRC resolution is no remedy for any existing ills. It is indeed advisable for Colombo to take every possible measure to keep such prescriptions at bay, and ensure that they are duly blocked.

It goes without saying that intelligent domestic policy – and not only diplomatic lobbying – is the best-recommended medication to the ailment.

(Chaminda Weerawardhana)

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