It has been reported that the Government has asked US President Elect Donald Trump to pressure the UN Human Rights Council to drop war crimes allegations against the country’s troops. First of all, while there are references to allegations, what the UNHRC has focused on is essentially effective investigations. It’s the modalities that have been scripted into the entire narrative on the Council’s discussion with Sri Lanka that have raised questions about infringement on sovereignty, selective application of principle etc.
More importantly, writing to Donald Trump on this particular issue indicates a certain naïveté which is scary considering how important logic, good sense, knowledge and such are in the sphere of diplomatic relations.
The missive follows Sri Lanka, in post-Mahinda Rajapaksa euphoria perhaps and perhaps believing that the done thing was to do whatever the previous regime didn’t do, went ahead and co-sponsored what is clearly a UNHRC resolution that ran counter to the country’s interests. Asking Trump to dump it indicates misgivings. It also indicates that the Government implicitly acknowledges that the UNHRC is Washington’s pawn. Thirdly, it is essentially an unofficial submission of the country’s national interests to the whims and fancies of the USA.
The Government is essentially saying ‘big brother, get the UNHRC off our back, please’. Big brothers make rules, kid brothers submit. Once the nature of the relationship is established (and that’s what this request does), there’s no going back.
Now it can’t be the case that the Government realized that it had erred or that the UNHRC resolution runs against the national interest only after Donald Trump won the election. The Government did not appeal to Obama. So why appeal to Trump?
The obvious answer (the true answer only the Government would know) is Trump’s ‘nationalism’. Trump’s straight talk about ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorism’ might have also nudged the Government into believing that he would be different to Obama. Well, there’s nothing to say that nationalists of one country would find lots of common ground with nationalists of another country. To put it crudely, wars are all underwritten by nationalisms, it’s ‘nationalists’ that fight one another. In other words the idea of ‘Making America (sic) Great Again’ is by definition about an even more prominent role globally (‘great’ makes sense only in relation to other countries, after all). The USA does not have to worry about making anyone else great, or rather less a pariah internationally. Washington does not operate that way.
Perhaps the Government was inspired by Trump’s ‘nationalism’ to all of a sudden think ‘nationally’ (which it hasn’t going by what the Foreign Ministry has been doing since January 2015). Even if that were the case, the more prudent approach would be one of using relevant statements from nations that have censured Sri Lanka in the recent past and making a Sri Lankan policy statement that is clear, logical, draws from relevant contexts and consistent with the statements made by such nations. Assuming that Trump will ‘bail us out’ just because Trump made some nationalistic noises is plain silly. It would have been better for example to draw extensively from Theresa May’s positions on the subject, refer to them, and make a Sri Lankan policy statement on allegations and investigations related to ‘war crimes’. Just say ‘we have strengthened and will continue to strengthen further the domestic mechanisms’ and be done with it.
This of course does not mean that Theresa May is a saint. Britain has her reasons which are clearly not of the same order of the issues Sri Lanka has to contend with. However, if it’s word play then one needs to be smart about it.
The words to Donald Trump are weak and weakening. Quite apart from the sophomoric nature of the letter, it shows a serious weakness. The regime knows that it will run into trouble with the electorate due to the mishandling of things pertaining to the UNHRC. If the previous regime floundered thanks to arrogance and other kinds of idiocy, this government is tripping on unpardonable naïveté (we are being kind here).
The Government is weak but it need not go out of its way to demonstrate the fact. It is the same with respect to constitutional reform. A lot of noise about power-devolution, some whimpering statements expressing misgivings mostly from proxies (the SLFP and Champika Ranawaka) but no clear stand. This is dangerous in a context where certain elements are trying to fast-track the whole process, much in the way that J.R. Jayewardene fixed the mythical boundaries of Eelam with the 13th Amendment. The President has been bold enough to say that current provincial boundaries were basically drawn by the British, implying that power devolution based on such lines would be erroneous and indeed a travesty of justice. He has stopped there without taking the argument to its logical conclusion.
We can draw a parallel from the love note to Trump. When one asks a favour, one is obligated. One submits. The one implies the other. It’s the same with the federal idea. It’s about two (or more) distinct political entities (usually an ethnic or religious community) contained in a geography with a considerable history voluntarily coming together. That’s the story of the US constitution and also the Indian union. In Sri Lanka’s case, these ‘conditions’ are far from established. However, what is pertinent is that the fact of ‘coming together’ automatically scripts in the option of separation, regardless of rhetoric (at this point) disavowing such intent. The Government, it seems, is well on the way to scripting in the possibility or option of separation through constitutional reform. Sure, there will be safeguards, but there’s nothing to stop a future Amirthalingam or Chelvanayakam or Prabhakaran from pointing out the implicit acknowledgment (in such an amended article in the Constitution) of a specific, ethnic-based political entity contained/containable in a specific geography and using this to legitimate agitation and re-taking of arms.
Both in constitutional reform and dealing with the international community, or rather those sections of it that have pushed against Sri Lanka, the Government has been lethargic and sophomoric. It would be surprising if it changed the complexion of international relations, especially with respect to the human rights circus. Domestically, it is a recipe for strife due to lack of clarity and statements that raised more questions that delivered answers. One is tempted to talk of trumps. And of course jokers. But let’s just say ‘missed a few tricks’.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Blog: